At Il Foro, Minneapolis' prettiest historic dining room joins the here and now

Dario’s rabbit cacciatore is inspired and homey.

Dario’s rabbit cacciatore is inspired and homey.

It's been said that McDonald's is not in the restaurant business but the real estate business. And since they are (were?) the most recognizable, famous, and successful restaurant business in America, this may not be a bad model to consider.

Longtime restaurateur Josh Thoma (Smack Shack) seems to have gotten the memo, though he's applying it to a more rarefied, upscale experience: He joined forces with Jack Riebel, Lorin Zinter, and Kevin Fitzgerald to acquire some of the finest restaurant real estate in town: the old Forum Cafeteria space in Minneapolis and St. Paul's beloved grande dame, the Lexington.

The Forum Cafeteria space is an enchanted forest in the middle of the city. The greens that make up this soaring-ceilinged art deco wonder — Doublemint, evergreen, Army jeep, grasshopper pie — feel like all the greens, or at least the very best of the greens. The lush palette is magnified by wall mirrors that bevel into forever-land, reflecting infinite repetitions of themselves.

Having this shuttered for any reason at all is a crying shame. Which of course it was, over and over again, as it changed hands over the years from restaurateur to restaurateur. In the mid-'90s, it was home to Goodfellows — arguably the most important restaurant in town — back when fine dining and all of its trappings was in vogue. Then it briefly became Forum, a relative debacle of a place where rotating (and not very good) menus from around the country (New Orleans, Santa Fe, Ketchikan) were served. It didn't last. Thoma and partners to the rescue.

Chef Jack Riebel has proven himself time and again to be a savant: at the Dakota, at Butcher & the Boar, at Paddy Shack at the Halftime Rec, and now at Il Foro. (And soon at the Lexington.) His cooking manages to be at once larger than life, with flavors that seem to strap on boxing gloves and bounce around the plate ready to knock you out. Yet nuance never evades him. His dishes are bold caricatures drawn with soft brush strokes.

So we've got Jack Riebel as culinary director, but also Joe Rolle, formerly of Parlour, where he was responsible for its famous burger. Go to Il Foro to have The Burger 2.0: the bigger, badder, better version of that double smash burger, with enough American cheese to make Wisconsin blush like they've lost their knickers; housemade pickles; and that classic squishy bun. This burger is so quintessential, it's come to define burgers in our Twin Cities. And for a little tease, they've made it available at lunch only.

Having this shuttered for any reason at all is a crying shame.

Having this shuttered for any reason at all is a crying shame.

Of course, the glittering backdrop of Il Foro is no place for burgers alone. The men were wise to grab the one culinary equalizer almost nobody can argue with: Italian.

Try and remember, round about two years ago, when there was actually a dearth of good Italian restaurants in Minneapolis. Chefs and restaurateurs noticed this at the very same time and now: Wham! We have Parella, we have Monello, and we might just have a glut of Italian.

But no matter, because Il Foro is different.

It's elegant, yes. They have crudo and handmade pastas. But here is what we like the most: Rolle, a Midwestern-born Italian American from the big, gregarious Italian family of your imagination, has a certain flirtatiousness when it comes to his cooking. He excels at technique, but then winks at those of us who grew up on red sauce, fat noodles, and garlic.

Take the bread basket, filled not with the artisanal this-and-that we've become accustomed to at high-end dining rooms, but a scratch-made and dignified cousin of the foil-wrapped, garlic buttery bread of childhood. This kitchen is unafraid to serve meatballs, naked and unadorned with nothing more than a lavish blanket of tomato sugo. The pair of them, made of pork, veal, and ricotta, are delicate and pillowy as cumulus clouds, and this, along with the bread, could make a bang up-meal all by itself, any time of day.

Giardiniera bruschetta lets Rolle play with that beloved, oily relish that makes a Muffuletta what it is. Here it becomes a decoded version of itself with pretty, individual baby cauliflower florets, coddled white beans, and celery cut with such precision each slice looks whittled individually, all of it draped with briny and assertive white anchovy.

Theirs is the only crudo of the year that made our eyes widen in understanding. Yellowtail plied with unctuous scoops of fresh passion fruit was revelatory.

But the pasta section is where things truly shine. If you're any fan at all of Bar La Grassa, you'd be wise to head over to this side of downtown, where they give that old stalwart a run for their flour and egg. Red wine rigatoni is their version of a traditional cacio e pepe, where the black pepper and Romano gets a gilding glug of wine. It's classic, with a dandy flourish.

The tortellini in brodo, with only a broth serving as the sauce, are a study in understatement, unless you look closely. Four baby-fist-sized pastas, curled in on themselves like frightened sea creatures, hide treasure within: bolognese, puréed almost to cream. Quiet, yet ballsy.

Better yet is the spaghetti al nero with clams, the edible equivalent of thrash metal Gwar teaming up with an orchestra — weird yet dignified. Squid ink spaghetti lies in a sinuous twist of briny black pasta bordering on creepy, its strangeness tempered by the familiarity of all-natural pepperoni rounds and tiny in-the-shell Manila clams. Jalapeño and garlic are cymbals crashing: the jalapeño, a bold move in Italian fare; the garlic, a comforting return to tradition. This one is beyond daring and one of our favorite dishes of the year.

Entrees can be a little hit-or-miss, working best when Rolle keeps his personal bag of tricks close by. Dario's Rabbit Cacciatore, a take on his own grandfather's recipe, is inspired and homey. Braised rabbit is set atop glossy and flawless polenta. Tomato and olive oil sugo plus an egg yolk crown it all like billowing silk.

But an obligatory steak, Block Cut NY Strip with Beef Short Rib, was a bit of a letdown (especially at a $42 price tag). While the steak was decent enough and cooked properly, the short rib component didn't work, set like dry slabs on a plate without their braising liquids. Pretty, but devitalized.

Il Foro has a delicate balancing act to perform. The space is too opulent to take anything less than seriously, but fine dining is a bit of a naughty phrase in these culinary times. Savvy diners know they can get excellent cuisine without the attendant price tags. So naturally, the Il Foro team will want us to think of the place for more occasions than just important ones. And it's true: Antipasti and a cocktail at the impressive cocktail bar managed by local drink impresario Trish Gavin won't set you back too dearly. That said, they'll also have to capture the all-important investment banker crowd, the ones with the $42 steak bank accounts.

Can they do it? If anyone can, it's this team in this space.

All that glitters is indeed not gold, and a lot of places will come and go as proof. But Il Foro has staying power. Bank on it.

Pro tip: Il Foro has several private dining options for groups large and small. Think of it for your next bachelorette party, business lunch, or holiday fete. 

Il Foro
40 S. 7th St., Minneapolis
menu items: $14-$100