Laura Bonicelli has been waiting a long time to open her namesake restaurant, and she’s not letting construction delays get in the way of her dream.
So, while the interior dining area in her Northeast space is still a work in progress, she has gone ahead and started serving her Mediterranean-inspired food to customers on the restaurant’s lovely outdoor patio. It’s a novel approach. Who wouldn’t rather eat outside in the garden on a beautiful Minnesota evening anyway?
While the plan is to eventually serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for now the patio is open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner only. The garden has been landscaped to provide a relaxing respite from the hustle and bustle of Central Ave. There is a temporary tent-like covering that shelters diners from the sun, but soon the patio will boast a stately pergola.
The menu is built around small plates, which are meant to be mixed, matched, and shared. And despite the reasonable prices ranging from $6 to $11, the portions are generous, as is the hospitality. Each table is graced with a complimentary tray of nibbly bits — roasted almonds, meaty green olives, focaccia baked in-house, and figs served with house-made ricotta. It’s a welcome treat, just enough to take the edge off your hunger while you contemplate what you’ll order.
You’ll definitely want to try the torta rustica with Bonicelli tomato sauce, a house specialty. Layers of spinach, provolone, eggplant, and roasted peppers are ensconced in a flaky, buttery pate brisee crust. The torta easily stands three inches high. The vegetables are fresh and bright, and you’ll taste each and every component of the dish, which manage to keep their individual personalities while the flavors meld together.
If, as you blissfully enjoy your slice of torta, you think “this would be great for my next party,” you’re in luck. Bonicelli will sell an entire torta for you to take home. Whether you tell your guests that you baked it is between you and your conscience.
The take-home option is an extension of Bonicelli’s meal delivery service. Via Bonicelli Fresh Meal Delivery, she has been providing healthy meals to everyone from Mark Dayton (before he was governor), to professional athletes to regular Joes and Janes for eight years. She has never had a kitchen to call her own; getting one was part of the impetus for the new restaurant.
The road to opening any restaurant is fraught with obstacles, but Bonicelli had more than her fair share of setbacks. In 2015, she thought she had found the perfect location, a few blocks away from her eventual home. She ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, signed a lease, and lined up her city permits.
But there were complications with the landlord of the original property, and the deal eventually fell through. She found her current building, which happened to come with a fully operational kitchen, this winter, and has been working non-stop to launch the restaurant. She’s hoping to open the indoor dining room later this month.
While things didn’t necessarily work out as planned, Bonicelli looks on the bright side. “Opening with just the patio is a great way to train staff,” she says. It also provides feedback that she is using to fine tune the menu.
If the oohs and ahs at our table were any indication, the Vietnamese-style baby back ribs with palm sugar sauce are a keeper. You might have to order a second plate to avoid an ugly scene. The tender ribs are lacquered with a palm sugar glaze that could be habit forming, and served with a zippy Asian slaw.
The salad Nicoise will have you feeling like you’ve been transported from northeast Minneapolis to the French Riviera. The familiar ingredients are carefully curated: tuna from Spain, French salt-packed capers, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, black olives, and a hard boiled egg. But it is the dressing that really stands out. The savory, garlic-packed elixir will leave you tempted to lick your plate.
That salad is one of two menu items that are available either as small or large plates. The other is a seasonal pasta dish, which right now is a summery combination of sweet corn, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and roasted butternut squash tossed with fusilli and pesto, and served with burrata, that decadent version of mozzarella in which an outer layer of mozzarella is wrapped around more mozzarella mixed with cream. The dish sounds simple, but simple things are difficult to do well. The pasta embodies the cooking mantra of using the best ingredients and letting them shine.
Bonicelli is serious about her sourcing, using the best seasonal, local, and imported ingredients she can find. The well-informed servers can fill you in if you have questions. Because of the focus on seasonality, certain menu items will come and go as dictated by what is fresh and abundant at any given time. And also by the whims of the chef, which is why you’ll find Vietnamese ribs on a mainly Mediterranean menu.
The small but interesting beer and wine selection currently features beers from Fulton, Bent Paddle, and Surly. The entire wine list is available either by the glass or by the bottle with 11 carefully chosen options, including two sparkling wines and a pair of roses, all of which go well with summer.
1839 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Open Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.