Tim McKee revamps Il Gatto's menu

Executive chef Jim Christianson

Executive chef Jim Christianson

Everybody's doing interventions these days, and not just the A&E television show. Kids getting unruly? Call Nanny 911 to the rescue. Undisciplined pooch? Take a few tips from the Dog Whisperer. And for local restaurants gone rogue, well, that's where chef Tim McKee comes in.

Late last fall, the Parasole restaurant group opened Il Gatto in the home of its longtime Hennepin-Lake mainstay, Figlio. The restaurant's vibe was somewhat sleeker than Parasole's typical offerings, though not lacking in the group's signature bawdiness. But the food—Italian, with a seafood focus—was inconsistent. When I initially reviewed the place, I encountered several serviceable and delicious dishes, but far too many received the dreaded Do Not Recommend, due to everything from lackluster seafood to unpleasant flavor pairings.

Besides the issues with its menu, Il Gatto's concept was problematic on a macro level. From a business perspective, its culinary offerings positioned the restaurant's brand too similarly to the other Parasole restaurants located, literally, right next door. After Parasole installed Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group in Calhoun Square this summer, the group had three restaurants on the same corner, all vying, essentially, for the same market share. True, Chino Latino was a little rowdier and Cafeteria a bit more nostalgic, but all three eateries offered mid-priced comfort food and a fun attitude for any dining occasion that fell between cheap eats and anniversary dinners. In a way, the three restaurants felt interchangeable, and the diner they sought was the same one targeted by roughly 90 percent of the restaurants in the neighborhood.

So Parasole's CEO Phil Roberts contacted McKee, who had worked as a line cook at Figlio in college 20-some years ago and has since created his own impressive restaurant empire. The two forged a partnership that put McKee in charge of reworking the menu and overseeing the kitchen staff, now headed by one of McKee's longtime protégés, Jim Christianson.

Clearly, Parasole could benefit from the experience of a nationally respected, James Beard Award-winning chef. But why was McKee, founder of the fine-dining temple La Belle Vie, cooking at a place that referred to its restroom as "The Litterbox"? And could the Midwest's Best Chef redeem a restaurant that had received last year's most disparaging City Pages review?

MCKEE'S TALL, imposing, white-coated presence has become a local icon of quality dining, and it's initially a little jarring to spot the man circling Il Gatto's dining room—where sports matches play on overhead televisions and New Order blares on the stereo—checking on his ball cap-wearing clientele.

Overall, the restaurant doesn't look so different than it did last year, though several subtle improvements have been made. The cat theme, in fact, has nearly disappeared ("That needed to go," McKee remarks), and photos of feline butt sniffing have been replaced by more palatable images of, say, pretty women on scooters. Wine cabinets and a refrigerated case near the bar were removed to make that area feel more open and welcoming. In the same room, Parasole added new booths along with enormous screened windows between the restaurant and the sidewalk.

McKee cites these changes as one of the reasons he wanted to work with Parasole and says he admires the way the group is constantly evaluating its businesses and making tweaks, even if the changes are expensive. "When they see an issue, they have the wherewithal to address it," he notes.

McKee sees his relationship with Parasole as a sign of the company's renewed commitment to food, he says, which hasn't always necessarily been their focus. "They've always made great restaurants," he says, "but the food wasn't the star." With Il Gatto, McKee wanted to change that notion by raising the culinary bar. "None of the food really stood out. It was mostly middle-of-the-road crowd pleasers," he says of the restaurant's early days. "We had to be more than that. We had to introduce a sense of adventure and quality and authenticity."

McKee's new menu supplanted the former plastic-covered lists emblazoned with a few iconic, phallic-looking kitty paws with spare, more elegant indexes, printed on heavy card stock—a signal that the kitchen will be regularly changing its dishes. Still hewing to Italian tradition, the new menu has more energy and intrigue than the one offered at the restaurant's opening, with its addition of more seasonal, sophisticated, and unusual ingredients. A salad of prosciutto, gorgonzola, and roasted pears, for example, is served on a bed of delicate mache. Bolognese sauce is made with rabbit, a light but still-rich riff on the more straightforward pork-beef versions.

Figlio could be credited with introducing the Twin Cities to calamari back in the '80s, and Il Gatto is already turning diners on to barbecued octopus. Squeamish eaters may feel their stomachs churn at the sight of the thick, whip-like tentacles that arrive on a plate of arugula, peperonata, tiny rice beans, and a spicy tomato gastrique that resembles cocktail sauce. The octopus, though, has a smoky flavor and an inoffensive texture that's somewhat chewy and almost waxy—a bit like gnawing on an earplug, if that can be interpreted as a positive thing.

In fact, all the seafood I sampled at Il Gatto was excellent, starting with the slow-cooked, cured swordfish served with heirloom tomatoes, radishes sliced to a translucent thinness, and dressed with tonatto sauce. The meaty fish plays well with the tomato's bright, juicy acidity, the radish's crispness, and the creamy tang imparted by a drizzle of Italy's classic pureed tuna fish. (A good tonotto is hard to find in Minneapolis, especially since Adam Vickerman left Tosca.) The spicy bobolotti is a beguiling, cioppino-like, tomato-based stew of lobster, shrimp, clams, and crab scattered with life preserver-shaped pasta rings. Skate wing, typically served with capers and brown butter, gets a livelier treatment with an aggressive puttanesca sauce—tomatoes, capers, black olives, garlic—and sides of braised fennel and marinated artichokes.

There's also a great steak—a rustic-looking spread of ribeye, broccolini, and thumb-sized corona beans in a sauce that tastes rich with butter and wine. A complicated pork dish, the zampone di Milanese, offers three versions of the meat, carefully balanced by a celery salad and celery root polenta. Traditional zampone is a pork sausage-stuffed, crisp-skinned pig foot, and McKee's version evokes its best attributes in a form that, well, doesn't involve hooves. The result is what a fast-food McNugget could only aspire to be: rich, gelatinous trotter meat that's braised, picked off the bone, breaded, and sautéed. It's a great accompanying contrast to two rounds of pork tenderloin, tender as rare ahi tuna, encased in a tasty pork sausage.

Vegetables at Il Gatto are prepared with enough gusto to appeal to a notoriously averse American palate. Kale is cooked with garlic and pancetta. Roasted cauliflower comes tossed with golden raisins, chiles, and grana cheese, leaving the112 Eatery's cauliflower fritters with a serious competitor on their hands.

Desserts, courtesy of Adrienne Odom, include both classics and creative offshoots. The chocolate budino, a holdover from the restaurant's earlier days, is a delightfully moist cross between steamed pudding and cake. The tiramisu has excellent flavor and comes cutely spiked with two, shadow-thin, spoon-shaped cookies (though the texture of the soaked ladyfinger layer, as always, reminded me of wet sweat socks). During my visits, Odom's boundless creativity and exacting technique were best showcased by a subtle chestnut cake with white chocolate semifreddo and a gel-like orange curd. The three flavors cut a distinctly Italian profile while creating a surprising synergy.

I would skip only a few dishes on future visits. While I liked the lovely twists of trofie pasta tossed with plump, sustainably sourced shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and pistachio pesto, I couldn't get past the dish's traditional, though odd-tasting, orange hints. The crust on the buratta pizza with basil/rapini pesto and pine nuts was pleasantly crisp, but the melted burrata had sadly lost the characteristic milky texture and funky notes that the cheese tends to have at room temperature. (In any case, the pizzas are best sampled on Wednesday nights, when the restaurant offers a "Pinot Envy" combo of pizza and glass of pinot for $10. And we'll let Roberts's dirty joke slide only because it's such a steal.)

While diners can always order from the brief list of Figlio favorites, including the ravioli and calamari, tucked into the menu's corner, to do so seems like a missed opportunity when Il Gatto 2.0 offers, essentially, a Italian version of La Belle Vie crossed with a neighborhood bar. It's inventive, gourmet fare without the typical small portions, high price tag, and formal setting.

Another plus of the restaurant's new menu is that it seems to have injected the waitstaff with a more genuine enthusiasm about what they're serving. One especially impressive server talked about the dishes with such specificity it was almost as if he had designed them himself. McKee says he plans to tackle the restaurant's happy hour menu and the cocktail list in the upcoming weeks, though I hope he retains the Branca Bomb, a shot of Italy's famous fog-cutting, medicinal-tasting liqueur, fernet, in a glass of San Pellegrino Limonata and, as the menu says, "courage."

Incidentally, McKee cites the opportunity to cook authentic Italian as one of the main reasons he took the Il Gatto gig. "It's kind of how I got my start, where I came from culinarily, and probably my favorite cuisine." His efforts have turned last year's biggest underperformer into this year's most improved—a restaurant well-deserving of a scratch behind the ears.