If I didn’t already know that Figlio (all together now: fee-lee-oh) is Italian for “son,” I would probably buy the argument that its English equivalent is “money machine.”
A quick recap: For most of the quarter-century that the restaurant ruled the corner of Lake and Hennepin in Uptown Minneapolis, Figlio was a steady profit center for its parent company, Parasole Restaurant Holdings.
What happened next could be fodder for a business school case study. In a 2009 effort to shake things up, Parasole pulled the plug on a brand name that, as it turned out, had a consumer recognition level just slightly less potent than, oh, Dayton’s. Making matters worse, its replacement belly-flopped. Loudly. The whole unfortunate episode was a rare misstep for the savants behind Manny’s Steakhouse, Chino Latino, the Good Earth and other monuments on the local dining landscape.
Enter Crave smart guy Kam Talebi, he of the finger firmly planted on the populist dining-out pulse. His year-old Sopranos Italian Kitchen in St. Louis Park’s Shops at West End complex wasn’t exactly causing Open Table meltdowns. A few meetings and one licensing agreement later, Talebi, armed with the name, a handful of recipes and a bit of signage, yanked Figlio back from the dead.
With a vengeance. Jam-packed appears to be the reservation system’s default position. “This place is like an ATM with a kitchen,” said my friend, as we were politely informed of a 30-minute wait for a table. At 5:30 p.m. On a Tuesday. Jackpot.
Those expecting to bend time and space to find themselves dining in Reagan-era (or Clinton-era, for that matter) Calhoun Square might find Figlio 2.0 disappointing. It’s less of a carbon copy and more of a vague, marketing-driven impersonation.
There are a dozen or so revivals of Dishes of Figlio Past, but only the overstuffed tortellini really stands out. Chef J.P. Samuelson, one of the few practitioners of his generation to have never punched the Figlio time clock, has crafted a modern interpretation of that classic, and it’s a must-order, although its decadent infusion of cream, mushrooms, prosciutto and beef are not for the faint-of-heart-disease.
Fun fact: The original, forward-thinking Figlio sported the Twin Cities’ first wood-burning oven. Which is why it’s a relief to discover that Samuelson’s crew is churning out pizzas of distinction, topping chewy, bubbled crusts with an inspired array of premium ingredients, including fennel-packed house-made sausage with tart apples, shrimp with a lively pesto and a happy marriage of cured salmon, preserved lemon and dill.
Still, despite an admirably disciplined Margherita pizza, my first impression of the restaurant wasn’t particularly favorable.
Our harried and forgetful server slogged us from one culinary land mine to another: rubbery, aggressively seasoned pastas, all artlessly blanketed with the same grated cheese-parsley garnishes. Dry, stringy chicken satays. A beautiful timbale of silken raw tuna and avocado, ruined by toasts that could have come out of a Melba package. A dull baked ricotta, spread on olive oil-soaked bread. Dessert? An amateur-hour banana cake and an embarrassingly bad apple crisp.
It was a real C-minus evening, and that’s being generous.
A welcome turnaround
Flash forward a few weeks to several return visits, and redemption was in the air. It was as if we were dining in a completely different restaurant. Starting with the pastas, which were now something of a revelation.
An agreeably sloppy toss of pappardelle and mouth-melting chunks of slow-braised lamb was tailor-made to ward off the chill of a frigid January night; seriously, I could gratefully consume it until the jonquils appear. A wide bowl of ziti, dressed with a not-afraid-of-heat tomato-Italian sausage sauce, was similarly comforting. Ditto the uncomplicated ravioli, stuffed with three white cheeses and splashed with an herb-packed tomato sauce, or the lovely butternut squash-filled cappelletti and their sage and pumpkin seed accents. Earth-shattering, no. But totally satisfying.
Samuelson has always had a knack for porchetta. At Figlio, he makes it a key ingredient in a winning bruschetta and as the centerpiece of a marvelous entree. Tender meatballs, served over toothy gigante beans, boasted a big, bold lamb-ey bite. Even dessert did not disappoint, particularly the accurately over-the-top nod to the infamous “Death by Chocolate,” a restraint-free layer cake of the flourless chocolate variety, embellished with a parade of chocolate garnishes.
As with so many covers-all-the-bases menus, the kitchen’s least complicated work is its most reliable. A chicken breast, flattened on the grill and exuding a Minnesota-friendly level of garlicky bite, is served over a bed of buttered spaghettini and garnished with crispy fried parsley. A juicy, gently charred, pink-to-ruby steak cuts like a dream and shares the plate with a mountain of the skinny, crispy French fries.
Burgers hit all the right grace notes. Side dishes are a pleasingly idiosyncratic lot, and salads are thoughtfully composed. And in the evenings, there’s a fork-tender pot roast, its mouthwatering scent a constant reminder of the beef’s unhurried red-wine braise.
The restaurant might be better off ignoring specific parts of its past and forging ahead. For example, skip “Joe’s Eggs,” a not-remarkable blast-from-the-past hash, in favor of “JP’s Eggs,” Samuelson’s much more palatable poached egg-salt cod-béarnaise sandwich.
Location, location, location
Now in its third restaurant iteration, the space echoes its two previous tenants but doesn’t manage to muster up much of its own personality. Vast and generic, it makes little effort to resemble its Calhoun Square predecessor, at least beyond a few random artifacts, including a couple of the restaurant’s famously snarky billboards and several iterations of its logos.
Turns out some qualities aren’t easily replicated, including sexual tension. While the bar at the original Figlio was synonymous with hookup — if there wasn’t a cocktail named “Remove Your Wedding Ring,” there should have been — it’s tough to imagine anyone getting anything going in St. Louis Park. Chalk that up to the difference between Uptown’s varied urban setting and the West End’s prefabricated aura.
Still, come doggy bag time (an inevitability in this House of Large Portions), the Figlio of old comes rushing back. Yes, it’s the triumphant return of the restaurant’s aluminum foil swans, the showy leftover vessel that remains equal parts tacky, endearingly retro and hilarious.
Foilgami, as a friend of mine calls it. Nice touch.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib