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?
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.
Chef Matthew Kempf, who has cooked at Goodfellow's, A Rebours, and Red, moved from his most recent position leading Parasole's Salut to head Il Gatto's kitchen. A handful of Figlio favorites remain, including the three-cheese ravioli, but most of the menu is new, with a focus on sharable small plates and seafood dishes. There are dishes as familiar as steaks and burgers, plus those with octopus and sea urchin for the more adventurous, and some that split the difference, like the pizza topped with house-cured salmon with black mustard.
It might take me some time to give Il Gatto a second (actually fourth) chance, but if I do, I'd definitely order either the baby field greens with gorgonzola, dried cherries, and pecans, or the insalata rucola, which is arugula, prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, and grana padano cheese, with a couple of dainty breadsticks. Both were perfectly composed and properly dressed: fresh and grassy, balanced by savory musk, vinegar tang, and hints of sweetness, juiciness, or crunch. And priced at six bucks, they're a steal.
A few other things were not as special as the salads but also worked. I actually liked the Il Gatto burger better than any of the ones I had at Parasole's Burger Jones. For about the same price, this one comes on griddled bread, piled with arugula, red peppers, grilled red onion, and smear of goat cheese, and is accompanied by a large pile of skin-on fries with grated pecorino. The Il Gatto pizza is also tasty: plump crust, roasted shrimp, fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato, and big hunks of green olives.
When, inevitably, you're supposed to join a group of your friend's cousin's friends at Il Gatto, you'd also do well with the tender gnocchi and lamb ragu or the pork stew with spicy house-made pork sausage, tomatoes, and chickpeas. Both were good, though not remarkable enough to crave.
But each time I dined at Il Gatto, more and more dishes kept creeping onto my "Do Not Recommend" list. A bowl of fresh, delicate tagliatelle was swamped by a creamy sauce with hints of nutmeg and orange zest that didn't seem to fit with a medley of peppers and pistachios. A flatiron steak with pesto had little flavor beyond an oily, bitter char. And goat-cheese truffles were basically just an overwhelming mouthful of cheese, which eclipsed their toasts and spices.
Il Gatto's menu places a strong emphasis on seafood, and those dishes ranged from decent to dreadful. Frito misto—in this case, a mix of squid, shrimp, scallops, zucchini, green onion, and fried lemon slices—was a fun, sharable appetizer, but the salmon crudo, served on a lovely pink salt block, was more enjoyable for its presentation than its flavor. Breaded marlin served with fried capers was a perfectly safe choice, but it just wasn't very inspiring.
The deeper into the oceanic dishes I dove, the more things went wrong. Head-on shrimp in a Tunisian-inspired dish became less appealing when paired with a smoky chickpea puree and a puff-pastry pinwheel, as both were seasoned with a blend of pulverized, dehydrated produce that ended up tasting a bit burnt and dusty. Two dishes featured crabmeat that tasted mealy and blah instead of briny and sweet. The cannelloni di mare wrapped the crab with lobster and mascarpone in some rubbery pasta sheets and topped it with a lobster cream sauce that was a little like a seafood version of hollandaise. The pasta stratocasta paired the same lackluster crab with taut black linguini (cut by a tool that resembles a guitar to give it a rougher surface) and a buttery sea-urchin sauce that added more sour, algae-like flavors than bright, oceanic complexity. My friend shoved the dish away and proclaimed it like licking the bottom of an aquarium.
Sea urchin, even at its best and freshest, is far from a crowd-pleaser. (It's probably one notch above the cui, or guinea pig, served at Parasole's Chino Latino, kitty-corner from Il Gatto.) Several of the desserts struck me similarly: Would the flavors please a mainstream audience?
Il Gatto's dessert list was produced in collaboration with Adrienne Odom, who has turned out thrilling creations at Minneapolis's Aquavit and La Belle Vie. Odom recently returned to Minnesota after working in New York, and I was curious to see what her nuanced, elegant style would bring to a company better known for brownies the size of a car battery and cheesecakes that might double as Paul Bunyan's doorstop.
I loved the moist, warm chocolate budino with salted caramel ice cream, but none of the other desserts were nearly as pleasing. Bombolini, little Italian fried dough baubles, were drier and less satisfying than squishy American mini-donuts or Mexican churros. The limoncello tiramisu seemed clunky, the chocolate and pistachio layers in the spumoni lacked the oomph of the cherry, and an almond panna cotta dissolved on the tongue to be more watery than creamy. The panna cotta was paired with a sauce that tasted like a cross between mulling spices and Christmas potpourri—not exactly a classic to the American palate. Were Kemp's and Odom's transitions from the fine-dining world to the more crowd-pleasing Parasole fraught with the same difficulties of trying to turn a novelist into a blogger?
Parasole's resources enable the group to spend plenty of time calculating and strategizing before opening a new restaurant. And the plan seems to be working for someone—many someones, in fact. But dining at Il Gatto left me wishing that the talent Kempf and Odom have previously displayed would have made more of an impact. As my initial excitement about the restaurant turned to disappointment, I felt a little led on. Is that what you'd call a cat-tease?