Zelo, a sophisticated new Italian cafe, is the latest entry in a very crowded field of upscale dining establishments on Nicollet Mall. The last two years have brought us Oceanaire, Aquavit, Merchants, the Local and (a short distance away) the Capitol Grille, all stylish and elegant venues where dinner for two can run into three figures.
Is there room for one more?
When it is this good-looking and this versatile, the answer is yes, there will always be room for Zelo. (OK, OK, they pronounce it Zay-lo, not Zell-o, but at least I tried.)
Zelo is the newest creation of Rick Webb, owner of the popular Ciao Bella in Bloomington. If the new venue looks and tastes familiar, that's because Webb's menu consultant on both restaurants is Rossana Bewick, who was also executive chef at the late lamented CocoLezzone. Sirny Architects and Duffy Design, who also designed Ciao Bella, have transformed the former Albrechts clothing store into a romantic cafe and bar with vaulted ceilings and a cosmopolitan feel.
The menu is compact but versatile, with options ranging from pizzas, pastas and salads to chicken, pork, beef and fresh fish specials. The lower-priced lunch menu omits the appetizers and most of the entrees, but adds panini and sandwiches.
For the adventuresome, there's the battuta di tonna ($8.95), finely diced cubes of raw tuna tossed with wasabe-coated peas, presented on a bed of finely shredded daikon and garnished with crisp white prawn crackers. And there's the tartufata ($8.95), a thin-crusted pizza topped with thin slices of sublimely aromatic white truffles.
If you prefer more familiar fare, Zelo offers calamari fritti, Caesar salad and spaghetti marinara. Even meat and potato fans will find something to like -- a choice of a New York strip ($24.95) or bone-in tenderloin ($26.95), with Yukon crispies.
You can dine elegantly -- and expensively -- at Zelo if you want to, but you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time. If your budget or appetite is limited, you can get by nicely by sharing a pizza and a salad.
Or you could split an appetato misto ($15.95), an enormous appetizer plate topped with salami, prosciutto and other meats and cheeses, olives, roasted peppers and marinated vegetables, plus six slices of toasted bruschetta. The menu says it serves two to four, but if you order it for two, it's really a light supper. (You probably could still find room for the dessert sampler platter [$9.95], which includes a rich and creamy blueberry flan, fresh fruit tart, chocolate nocciolato and the lightest, most delicate tiramisu I have ever tasted.)
My favorite of the pastas was the spaghettini al fresco ($10.95), an utterly simple preparation of fresh diced tomatoes and chopped fresh basil, olive oil and garlic, tossed with perfectly al dente noodles. The other pastas I sampled, including the cavatelli with broccoli, bacon, raisins and three cheeses ($12.95), the fusilli with grilled chicken, tomatoes and artichokes ($13.95) and the trofie with pesto, potatoes and green beans ($10.95) were also quite delicious -- especially the pesto -- but too heavy to enjoy in a full portion.
A better bet would be to request a half order, then split one of the generous entrees, such as the savory chicken paillard -- three big slices of boneless chicken breast in a piccata sauce ($14.95), or the equally tasty filletini, slices of pork tenderloin in a brandy cream and green peppercorn sauce.
A special menu insert lists the fresh fish specialties, which on recent visits have included grouper, halibut, Atlantic salmon and walleye. The grouper, served over porcini mushrooms and fresh spinach ($18.95), was a bit overdone, but still a wonderful piece of fish, as was the seared Alaskan halibut ($18.95), whose topping of artichokes and minced olives offered strong flavors applied so carefully that they did not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fish.
Service was friendly, attentive and personable, except for one manager-type who had the impertinence to accuse me of being Jeremy Iggers. I denied it, of course.