If a restaurant fails, why would you replace it with the very same thing? It was a question I couldn't help but ask when I went to Rinata, the new Italian restaurant that took over the former home of Giorgio's on Hennepin Avenue.
For years the small storefront had been the domain of Giorgio Cherubini, an Italian native who helped pioneer fine Italian dining in the Twin Cities when he opened his first restaurant more than 20 years ago. Giorgio's had long been known for its cozy dining room and its fresh, simple Tuscan fare, but lately it had struggled to attract a steady clientele. Neighbors say the food and service had slipped—perhaps Cherubini was burning out on the business? At one time, he operated two other branches of Giorgio's, spaces that eventually devolved into a lesser Italian restaurant and a gift shop. Would replacing Cherubini's final restaurant also mean change for the worse?
Not when the new owners were Jonathan Hunt, chef-owner of the Al Vento Italian restaurant in Nokomis, and longtime Al Vento server Amor Hantous. After freshening up the space, the new restaurant seems a lot like Al Vento. Both dining rooms are dim and romantically lit, right down to the dangling bulbs robed in gauzy fabric that illuminate the golden walls. True, Al Vento's menu focuses on Southern, red-sauce dishes (Rinata's draws from all over Italy) and includes a short list of more expensive meat-based entrees, but the core of both restaurants is the same: stellar, fresh pasta.
Compared to dried pasta, the fresh stuff is like a young Hollywood starlet: It's rich, pliable, and loves the sauce. (Fresh pasta tends to have a rougher, more porous surface than dried and thus a greater ability to absorb the sauce's flavors.) Rinata's kitchen staff makes its dough from organic flour and eggs, which gives the noodles a golden sheen and a soft but taut, almost springy texture. When the pasta is cooked al dente, the teeth nearly bounce with each bite. With a daily changing menu of dishes all priced less than $15, Rinata's business model looks a lot like that of the always-packed Broders' Pasta Bar.
When Rinata opened its doors, it did so without spaghetti and meatballs on the menu. "Our customers were asking, 'Why don't you have it?'" Hantous says. So, in short order, Hunt offered up his version of the Italian-American classic: a tangle of noodles mounded with tomato sauce and two tender, fist-size rounds of ground pork and milk-sopped bread. The dish is as comforting as another popular Italian favorite, the butternut squash ravioli—petal-thin pasta pillows glossed with brown butter and sprinkled with fried sage leaves—which should also be a mainstay for the duration of the season.
While Rinata serves its share of classics, Hunt also likes to work with underappreciated ingredients (in the coming months, he may add dishes that incorporate sardines and the thistle-like cardoon). Wild boar is one of those items that is, regrettably, not often seen on local menus. In Hunt's risotto, it tasted like a sweeter, gamier version of slow-cooked pork or beef, and combined with Portobello mushrooms, the creamy rice dish was perfect cold-weather fuel, packed with the flavors of earth, wine, and cheese. Oxtail is another often-overlooked meat made good in Hunt's care. Tucked into agnolotti (half-moon-shaped pasta pockets), the shredded meat was as soft as fuzz and had a ripe, almost vegetal flavor. Another rare bird, the duck ragout, made from braised legs and thighs and thickened with musty goat cheese, possessed just the right heft to stand up to a bowl of wide pappardelle noodles.
When I dined at Rinata, only one dish, the chicken piccata, used meat as its main element. (I'm used to seeing chicken dishes among the least expensive entrées on a menu, but here, with no steak or fish dishes, it's the priciest offering.) Piccata means the chicken breast is pounded, dredged in flour, and sautéed in butter. The addition of white wine, capers, and lemon livened up the pale plate of mild-mannered bird, roasted cauliflower, and gumdrop-like gnocchi. The only trouble with Rinata's pasta dishes generally was that they cooled too quickly and would have benefited from being served in pre-warmed bowls.
Beyond its pastas, Rinata serves a rotating array of single-serving pizzas with thin, chewy crusts. One night, I tried a version topped with mushrooms, artichokes, and salty pancetta nubbins sunk into a marsh of caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese. It held its own even when re-warmed the next morning for breakfast. (For those who are already fans of the pizzas at Al Vento, apparently Hunt prefers Rinata's oven and thinks the new restaurant's pizzas taste even better.)
Nobody's still on the Atkins diet, right? Good. But if you want to round out your meal, Rinata serves several tasty salads. I particularly liked the one with golden beets, goat cheese, pistachios, and reduced balsamic vinegar that was as thick and sweet as molasses. If you're still craving carbs, the panzanella, a summery salad typically created from leftover bread, exceeds its past-prime origins with crisp, oily croutons soaking up the flavor of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta.
The Tuscan soup, another hit from the appetizers section, is so delicious you'd never suspect its provenance was somewhat accidental. When Rinata's original chef departed shortly after the restaurant opened, Hunt was left in charge of the kitchen—and responsible for dealing with an order of 50 pounds of Wild Acres chicken. Thus came the happy accident of chicken sausage crumbled onto pizzas and pastas and the impetus for the creamy cannellini-bean-and-chicken soup.
Before Rinata arrived, midnight eats between Lake Street and downtown were a wasteland of greasy pizza and chicken wings, of overcooked omelets and hash browns. But Rinata's 1 a.m. kitchen closing means there's now a place to ditch the crowds drawn by Mug Clubs and two-for-one specials. Instead, you can snack on calamari crostini or eggplant involtini (eggplant sliced thin, rolled, and stuffed like a blintz with goat cheese and pine nuts) in comparable solitude.
If you're snacking during off hours, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. to close, every item that costs more than $5 is given a $2 discount. That means tiramisu and cannoli cost less than a fiver, as do a dark, gooey, molten chocolate cake and a gem of a pine nut tart. The tart's scratch-made pastry shells are filled with apricot jam, vanilla custard, and toasted pine nuts, and the result is something like a sophisticated version of pecan pie, without the tooth-aching sweetness. When I tried the tart, it was topped with vanilla gelato from Hunt's recently acquired gelato machine. The scoop was okay, but a little icy, so he may need a little more time to master the technique. I have to say, it did go nicely with a mix of homemade limoncello, gin, and Prosecco sipped from a champagne flute.
Several years down the road, if the Wedge neighborhood has all gone condo, if the once blood- and vomit-stained sidewalks are lined not with tattoo parlors and dive bars but bridal boutiques and hair salons, we may point to Rinata for launching the wave of gentrification. As for the present, while there's certainly a charm to the ripped booths at Lyle's and the eccentric Golooney's employees, it's nice to see the neighborhood retain a classy pasta place.