Tim McKee revamps Il Gatto's menu

It's a restaurant intervention

In fact, all the seafood I sampled at Il Gatto was excellent, starting with the slow-cooked, cured swordfish served with heirloom tomatoes, radishes sliced to a translucent thinness, and dressed with tonatto sauce. The meaty fish plays well with the tomato's bright, juicy acidity, the radish's crispness, and the creamy tang imparted by a drizzle of Italy's classic pureed tuna fish. (A good tonotto is hard to find in Minneapolis, especially since Adam Vickerman left Tosca.) The spicy bobolotti is a beguiling, cioppino-like, tomato-based stew of lobster, shrimp, clams, and crab scattered with life preserver-shaped pasta rings. Skate wing, typically served with capers and brown butter, gets a livelier treatment with an aggressive puttanesca sauce—tomatoes, capers, black olives, garlic—and sides of braised fennel and marinated artichokes.

There's also a great steak—a rustic-looking spread of ribeye, broccolini, and thumb-sized corona beans in a sauce that tastes rich with butter and wine. A complicated pork dish, the zampone di Milanese, offers three versions of the meat, carefully balanced by a celery salad and celery root polenta. Traditional zampone is a pork sausage-stuffed, crisp-skinned pig foot, and McKee's version evokes its best attributes in a form that, well, doesn't involve hooves. The result is what a fast-food McNugget could only aspire to be: rich, gelatinous trotter meat that's braised, picked off the bone, breaded, and sautéed. It's a great accompanying contrast to two rounds of pork tenderloin, tender as rare ahi tuna, encased in a tasty pork sausage.

Vegetables at Il Gatto are prepared with enough gusto to appeal to a notoriously averse American palate. Kale is cooked with garlic and pancetta. Roasted cauliflower comes tossed with golden raisins, chiles, and grana cheese, leaving the112 Eatery's cauliflower fritters with a serious competitor on their hands.

Executive chef Jim Christianson
Kate N. G. Sommers
Executive chef Jim Christianson

Desserts, courtesy of Adrienne Odom, include both classics and creative offshoots. The chocolate budino, a holdover from the restaurant's earlier days, is a delightfully moist cross between steamed pudding and cake. The tiramisu has excellent flavor and comes cutely spiked with two, shadow-thin, spoon-shaped cookies (though the texture of the soaked ladyfinger layer, as always, reminded me of wet sweat socks). During my visits, Odom's boundless creativity and exacting technique were best showcased by a subtle chestnut cake with white chocolate semifreddo and a gel-like orange curd. The three flavors cut a distinctly Italian profile while creating a surprising synergy.

I would skip only a few dishes on future visits. While I liked the lovely twists of trofie pasta tossed with plump, sustainably sourced shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and pistachio pesto, I couldn't get past the dish's traditional, though odd-tasting, orange hints. The crust on the buratta pizza with basil/rapini pesto and pine nuts was pleasantly crisp, but the melted burrata had sadly lost the characteristic milky texture and funky notes that the cheese tends to have at room temperature. (In any case, the pizzas are best sampled on Wednesday nights, when the restaurant offers a "Pinot Envy" combo of pizza and glass of pinot for $10. And we'll let Roberts's dirty joke slide only because it's such a steal.)

While diners can always order from the brief list of Figlio favorites, including the ravioli and calamari, tucked into the menu's corner, to do so seems like a missed opportunity when Il Gatto 2.0 offers, essentially, a Italian version of La Belle Vie crossed with a neighborhood bar. It's inventive, gourmet fare without the typical small portions, high price tag, and formal setting.

Another plus of the restaurant's new menu is that it seems to have injected the waitstaff with a more genuine enthusiasm about what they're serving. One especially impressive server talked about the dishes with such specificity it was almost as if he had designed them himself. McKee says he plans to tackle the restaurant's happy hour menu and the cocktail list in the upcoming weeks, though I hope he retains the Branca Bomb, a shot of Italy's famous fog-cutting, medicinal-tasting liqueur, fernet, in a glass of San Pellegrino Limonata and, as the menu says, "courage."

Incidentally, McKee cites the opportunity to cook authentic Italian as one of the main reasons he took the Il Gatto gig. "It's kind of how I got my start, where I came from culinarily, and probably my favorite cuisine." His efforts have turned last year's biggest underperformer into this year's most improved—a restaurant well-deserving of a scratch behind the ears.

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