Il Gatto replaces Figlio in Uptown

It's a slick operation, but too many dishes disappoint

The other night, seated in a booth in Il Gatto's clamorous dining room, I reached across the table and scooped up a spoonful of buttermilk ice cream that accompanied a wedge of polenta cake. When I slipped it into my mouth, the room froze, as if somebody had hit the pause button. For an imperceptible moment, rushing servers stopped in their tracks, conversations ceased, and I slipped into a reverie. The bite was full and voluptuous, gloriously smooth, and ripe with a cheesy, fermented tang: This was why we lay cooks set aside the spatula, put down the pots and pans, and pay talented professionals to cook for us.

Restaurant critics are always in search of the game-changing bite. The forkful of ratatouille that caused Anton Ego to drop his pen. The chocolate truffle that inspired my friend Brian, who was standing in my kitchen, to step back, lean against the wall, and crumple to the floor. This spoonful of buttermilk ice cream was one of them.

Problem was, the bite was part of my very last dish of my very last dinner at Il Gatto. It took me three meals, eight appetizers, ten entrées, five desserts, and several hundred dollars to find it. Could any needle be worth searching through such a daunting haystack?

Jana Freiband

Location Info

Map

Il Gatto

3001 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Details

IL GATTO
3001 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis
612.822.1688; Web site
appetizers $4-$16; entrées $13-$25

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Il Gatto's predecessor, Calhoun Square's workhorse Italian joint, Figlio, had been feeling a little dated since around the time jelly shoes went out of fashion. So when its ownership, the Parasole Restaurant Group (Manny's, Salut, etc.), announced it would replace the restaurant with a new concept last fall, I couldn't help but get excited. While Figlio had appeared alongside Spago in Beverly Hills as one of Metropolitan Home's top 10 bistros in the country shortly after its 1984 debut, the restaurant's former glory had faded into $3 happy-hour specials and plastic cafeteria trays of roasted turkey dinners and pint-size milk cartons. Was school lunch really kitschy and cute after the Reagan-era USDA proposed classifying ketchup as a vegetable?

Il Gatto, which means cat, approaches Italian cuisine with a bit of an edge—a fresher take to reflect changes in the neighborhood. My sense of Figlio's clientele was always that it was a little older and more suburban than the one populating the neighborhood's coffee shops and dive bars, and the first thing that struck me about Il Gatto was that the customer base doesn't seem to have changed. One night I watched an elderly man using a walker approach the host's stand and then realized I was the youngest person in the bar. If you've ever felt too old or unhip for Uptown, there are no such pretensions at Il Gatto.

The restaurant's large space and convenient Hennepin-Lake location means it continues to favor big-group celebrations: cheek-kissing men and girls in shiny shirts crowding into tables for 10, dishes and glassware piled with birthday cards and presents. On three separate occasions I watched a server pass by with a sparkler-topped ice cream sundae stuffed into a martini glass, which I'm assuming was intended for such a group's guest of honor.

Parasole's updates include incorporating more of the group's trademark raunch. My friends and I were constantly discovering bits of it on the menu, the walls, or the glassware: kitty butt-sniffing! Kitty genitalia! A rather phallic-looking pair of kitty paws! What could our waitress do but simply smile and shrug? Some staffers wear black T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that profess Parasole's anti-elitist approach to wine drinking: "How cheap is our wine?" one reads. "Well, it hangs out at our bar." Another says, "Wine so cheap it's practically slutty." A third reads, "Wine so cheap the bottles beg to be screwed." (At a Parasole restaurant, no surface seems to go unbranded. Sitting in Il Gatto's street-side dining room, you can look out the window and see a billboard advertising the restaurant you're seated inside.)

The restaurant has the requisite provocatively named specialty cocktails and martinis, such as Catnip, Smitten Kitten, and Pussification, and nearly a third of them contain the trendy elderflower liquor St-Germain. The Smokin' Enzo comes with a piece of dry ice in the bottom so it bubbles like a witch's potion. (There are also several "Spayed Beverages," which my pregnant friend ordered with some sense of irony.)

The wine list is mostly Italian, simply and affordably priced—all but the "splurge" bottles cost $19, $29, or $39, and the by-the-juice-glass pours are a generous 8.5 ounces. The beer list feels a little schizophrenic: For the same price you can have a Brau Bros. Scotch Ale, a local craft beer-drinker's beer, or you can have a bottle of Bud Light. "If you're going to pay five bucks for a Bud Light and you're not on a plane or in a stadium," my friend remarked, "you're an idiot." Was it some hipster's revenge, to reward the independent-minded with bargains and stick it to those with mainstream tastes?

Service is typical of Parasole restaurants: confident, a little harried, but always attentive. One night when my party arrived a few minutes late for our reservation, we ended up waiting more than 20 minutes for a table, crammed next to the glass case at the bar, being stared at by a silvery salmon packed on ice. The watchful host offered us a round of red wine from a label-less bottle and, sure, it tasted little better than plonk, but the gesture imparted goodwill.

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