Red Sauce Reverie

Giving the people what they want: Al Vento's Jonathan Hunt
Diana Watters
Al Vento
5001 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis

What does Jonathan Hunt, the charming 29-year-old behind the long dark locks, the South Africa-raised, Miami-trained, teetotaling son of missionaries know about Southern Italian food? Enough to pack the house at his new far-south Minneapolis restaurant Al Vento every single night.

I mean packed. Like a can of sardines in a Tokyo subway car in Times Square at midnight on New Year's. Packed.

Seriously. Try to get a table. I dare you.

These days they book about two weeks out, and for me, I've frittered away hours of my precious and ever-more-fleeting youth cooling my heels at the bar at Al Vento, staring longingly at tables filled with people looking gorgeous beneath the dim orange lights, and flushed with unusual Italian wines.

So what, besides the buzz, is the big draw? Bruschetta topped with olive tapenade. Caesar salad. Spaghetti with meatballs. Pizza scattered with sausage crumbles. New York strip steak with mashed potatoes. Tiramisu and crème brûlée. Sound like a revolution to you?

Me neither, but, evidently, a sturdy neighborhood Italian joint holds as much magical appeal in this part of town as a SpongeBob Band-Aid has for someone with a booboo.

So how's the food?

It's pretty darn good! You can start your meal with bruschetta, those little slices of olive oil-gilded toast, topped with a fresh chopped mixture of tomato and basil, a spoonful of tangy caponata, that marinated eggplant salad, or mashed olives in a tapenade spread. A plate bearing one of each costs $4. Baked mushroom caps filled with a nubbin of Italian sausage, breadcrumbs, and such, are fine. Crab cakes-- yes, crab cakes--are embellished with two sorts of aioli, one made with basil, the other sweetened with roasted red bell peppers, and have all the light, creamy, and crispy appeal of well-made crab cakes.

An almost totally charming appetizer is fashioned from slices of cold smoked salmon twirled around a spoonful of mascarpone cheese and festooned with fresh pomegranate seeds. The dish has texture to burn, with the silky fish, slick mascarpone, and popping pomegranate, and tastes fleeting and joyful. That is, as long as you skip the super-hard rounds of toast that lurk beneath the composition, which I found to be nearly too crisp to eat.

Giant blue prawns wearing wide belts of kataifi, that shredded phyllo dough, were good when the restaurant was slow (or rather, when I dined quite late): fresh and crisp, as dynamic with their potato-chip-crisp outsides and sweet insides as any sweet shrimp from a sushi bar. When the place was slammed, though, those same shrimps were served cold and shriveled, and cold cooking oil poured from their shells. I couldn't tell you why the things were served in a small dish of chilled caponata on either occasion.

All the salads I tried were very good. The Caesar ($6) was a particularly craveable version, in which nice, whole, young leaves of romaine were dressed with a perky, garlic-laced, but very creamy dressing, the composition enhanced by lovely thin planks of crouton and golden sheets of very good-quality Parmesan. Pizzas are all made on a sweet, rich crust: The fennel sausage one ($10) was scattered with chubby chunks of sweet sausage separated from one another by pools of melted goat cheese; the simple basil-tomato one topped with mozzarella made fresh at Al Vento, was as sweet, homey, and pleasant as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Pastas are the restaurant's most reliable menu section, and please note that chef Hunt and his staff make them all fresh everyday, even the spaghetti. Two of the best dishes I tried in all my visits to Al Vento were pastas. The first was a simple spaghetti tossed with tomato sauce, the pasta mounded over two big veal meatballs, each piquant with plenty of parmesan cheese, and meltingly tender ($12). The other standout was a variation of fettuccini in clam sauce ($15) made with pleasantly al dente fettuccini, allowed to stand on its own and not drowned in oil or butter, just touched with the right amount of garlic and oil, surrounded by lots of pink curls of well-cleaned shrimp and tender clams lolling prettily in their shells. It might have been the best fettuccini in clam sauce I've ever had in Minnesota.

While the menu as a whole is printed anew almost every day, in practice much has remained the same since I started visiting Al Vento in November (they opened in October, and I kept delaying my review waiting for the hype to die down; now I have concluded it may never). The entrées are the most often changed part of the menu, and also vary the most in quality. I recommend avoiding the New York strip ($20) which was, when I tried it, slices of gristly meat in an overly salty brown sauce, paired, oddly, with small button mushrooms filled with grainy spots of melted Gorgonzola. Meanwhile, medallions of pork were elegantly treated, seared till they were crisp outside but still pink and tender within, served on a bed of translucent strips of sweet oven-roasted rutabagas and turnips, topped with wedges of grilled pears, and surrounded on the plate by two sauces, one a balsamic with pomegranate molasses, the other an orange-Champagne sauce. It was a sturdy, well-prepared, utterly likable composition.

And yet, on that same comparatively slow night when the prawn appetizer mentioned above was dazzling, the seared scallops were very good. Here, herb-marinated dry-packed scallops were grilled till they were russety and crisp without and translucent and delicate within, and each was paired with a simple salad of shredded fennel, pomegranate seeds, parsley, oil, garlic, and red wine vinegar, and presented beside a mound of saffron risotto, deeply infused with cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

"I know cheese doesn't traditionally go with seafood in Southern Italian cooking," conceded Hunt, when I spoke to him on the phone for this story, "but I like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I'm not going to serve a risotto to people without cheese; they wouldn't really like it." Ditto, he says, for the pizza with potatoes: "Potato pizza might look like it's California cooking, but I had that in Sicily [and] no cheese. You couldn't get away with not having cheese on a pizza around here, so I adapt it to what the customers want." And thus the red potato, spinach, and Gorgonzola pizza was born.

Giving customers what they want is very much in evidence in the brief dessert list: a buoyant tiramisu, a rich chocolate ganache tart, a trio of the greatest hits of creamy, creamy crème brûlée (chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio, when I've had it), and a simple polenta cake.

Well, I should say that it used to be a simple polenta cake. In November, when I first went to Al Vento, the cake was dry, plain, and understated, one of those cakes that, like an American coffee cake, is meant as a sturdy, anytime foil to a beverage, in this case a sweet dessert wine, and perhaps an espresso as well. The last time I went to Al Vento, though, the cake had been cut in half and layered around a giant scoop of ice cream, and was getting to look like a strawberry shortcake: less sophisticated, more likable. If you told me the restaurant's next step was to offer free car washes, neck rubs, and cans of whipped cream with every dinner entrée, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Hunt simply has a bone-deep understanding of how to create a menu and restaurant that is likable, affable, and approachable, and thus, busy.

Let's just hope it doesn't kill him. "I went to the hospital with all of this," Hunt confessed when I caught him on what must have been his fourth month without a day off. "My prep cook works 160 hours every two weeks--he's the guy who rolls out all the fresh pasta, and makes all the stocks and sauces. We both ended up in the hospital. We were so busy, we weren't eating. The sous chef walked out on a Saturday night, it was...well, it doesn't matter. It's a lot of stress. The hardest thing has been turning people away. All this buzz--it's crazy. The phone won't stop ringing, even now in January. I just keep telling myself that all these reviews will die off, and the hype will die down."

"When is this coming out?" Hunt asked. I told him. "Well I guess I'm not going to Italy in February," he sighed. "Anyway, I know when all this hype dies down I'm going to be relying on the neighborhood to keep us going. I just hope we're making the neighborhood happy while we get through this craziness."

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Al Vento

5001 34th Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55417


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