Risotto, the new Italian restaurant at Lyn-Lake, might be the only place in the area where Andrea Bocelli can play on the stereo without seeming cheesy. The night I heard the blind tenor's passionate crooning, the restaurant wasn't very busy and its owner, Gabriele Lo Pinto, the chef who ran Edina's Arezzo for the past eight years, periodically came out of the kitchen to check on his customers. Lo Pinto's partner, Patrice O'Hanlon, who manages the front of the house, was taking a few minutes off to eat dinner at the bar, and Lo Pinto stopped to inquire about her food, in his thick Italian accent. He doted on her for a minute or so, draping himself over her shoulder in a cute display of affection. As if on cue, the stereo played "That's Amore."
Risotto's rust-and-golden walls look rather romantic when illuminated by pendant lights and tabletop candles. The dining room, which previously housed the short-lived Vino 610 and the even shorter-lived Aronas, is pretty in a spare, loft-like way, with its concrete floors and urban views. Tables wrap around a central bar so that most seats are positioned along the wall of divided-light windows, where diners might place bets on which neighborhood icon—a squad car or Galactic Pizza pod—is most likely to whiz past next. Compared to other Italian eateries in town, Risotto's vibe feels closest to the one at Rinata, the chic, casual Hennepin Avenue restaurant. Especially on nights when there's a show at the nearby Jungle Theater, the neighborhood seems eager for Risotto to fill the void left by the dearly departed jP American Bistro.
Because of its location, one of Risotto's biggest challenges may be fighting price perceptions. One night, for example, a couple of guys in business-casual dress walked in, and I overheard one say to the other, "This place looks too expensive." The guys turned around and walked out. If Risotto is too spendy for the polo-shirt set, what might we expect of the Penn Cycle bike mechanics or the route 21 bus riders?
I hope price-conscious diners aren't scared off by Risotto's classy looks, because its meals are priced rather affordably. At lunch, Lo Pinto offers panini with a choice of soup or salad for just $5 to $8. I tried the panini stuffed with Lo Pinto's spicy, house-made sausage, a wedge of Brie, and a slice of tomato, which resembled a less messy version of the classic Italian meatball sandwich. It came paired with tomato soup—a bright-tasting, herb-flecked pulp with a slick of olive oil on top—for roughly the price of a sub sandwich at the shop across the street.
The only problem I have with the lunches at Risotto is that they don't serve risotto. If the kitchen isn't busy, Lo Pinto will make it on request, but still...the idea that one could go to a restaurant named Risotto and not be able to order the dish is confounding. Imagine going to Pizza Nea and finding only bruschetta and salads, or A Piece of Cake and finding just cookies and pie. The risottos take about 20 minutes to make, perhaps longer than most lunch customers are willing to wait. Lo Pinto and Hanlon's rationale makes sense, but here's what I think: If you're confident enough in your risotto to name your restaurant after it, then it had better be pretty damned good. And if the risotto is that good, then for gosh sake don't hold out on us.
Especially because Lo Pinto's risotto is textbook. Restaurants will often par-cook the rice, a technique that makes the dish more likely to become mushy, gummy, and overcooked. Lo Pinto's secret is to not start cooking the risotto until it's ordered, a difference he describes as being "like buying a new car versus a used one." And after 20 years of cooking risotto in Italy, Asia, and Minnesota, he should know. I tried a few of the risottos—generous portions served in large, flat bowls—and found them to have perfectly sturdy yet tender grains of rice suspended in a thick, creamy sauce. The zafferano e salsiccia features the house-made Sicilian sausage, saffron, asparagus, and a shallot-stock-pinot grigio base that gives it a rich, savory, cheesy flavor. The piselli e fontina, made with prosecco, fresh peas, and gooey pockets of Fontina cheese, has lighter, more delicate flavors.
As for entrées, the pollo ai funghi di bosco, a chicken breast sautéed with leeks and mushrooms in a buttery white-wine sauce, has lovely forest flavors. (It's the sort of chicken dish that might convince diners who refuse to order chicken at restaurants to change their minds.) I also liked the MinItalian walleye ai capperi, a hefty fillet piled with sautéed spinach and suspended in a thick, salty, caper-studded sauce.
Pair one of those with a spinach salad (there's a nice one with red onion, button mushrooms, goat cheese, honey-mustard dressing, and crisp bits of pancetta), and you're in business. Or the polpettone di faggiolini, a small wedge of green bean soufflé served with melted Asiago (it tastes a bit like spanakopita filling served in the tangy, Kraft-dinner cheese sauce of your dreams) and you're golden. Though if you choose the clams, you're taking your life in your hands, risking shell-shard injuries in pursuit of some admittedly tasty shellfish.
I didn't find a pasta to get excited about, though the penne with prosciutto outshone the linguini with pesto, green beans, and potatoes, which inspired a rare reach for the salt shaker (maybe I was put off by the potato-pasta combo?). I felt the same about the desserts, which included a chocolate mousse cake, panna cotta with raspberry sauce, and, the best of the three, vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured on top and served in a footed glass bowl.
On one of my visits, Risotto's relaxed, homey ambiance turned a little too home-like when chef Lo Pinto conducted an extended phone conversation about the restaurant's financials out in the dining room, rapidly punching buttons on the POS machine and discussing sales tax increases. But overall, Risotto is a nice spot for enjoying Italian food and wine, and its low-key approach seems appropriate for the neighborhood.
So far, dinner service appears to be going well, attracting diners at both ends of the age spectrum, from an elderly man in a seersucker jacket to a diaper-swaddled baby plunked in the middle of the table. Yet during lunchtime, when Risotto's nearly empty dining room looked out on a vacant storefront and the liquidating inventory of Heavenly Soles, I couldn't help but wonder if Lyn-Lake is not quite ready for its post-road-construction restaurant revival. The neighborhood has certainly gentrified in the past few years, with the arrival of several new apartment-condo projects, but it's also still home to both the Country Bar and the VFW, among the diviest of the area's last remaining dive bars. As much as I like the gyros at Falafel King and the sweet-potato fries at Herkimer, I'd like to see the neighborhood support a diversity of dining options.