Counter intelligence: Figlio lives!

  • Article by: BY RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2012 - 2:35 PM

The team behind Crave will open Figlio in the Shops at West End, where its Sopranos now operates.

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Phil Roberts, right, hands over the "key" to Figlio to Kam Talebi, the force behind Crave.

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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Turns out it's never too late to right a wrong.

At least when it comes to Figlio, the Uptown grande dame that closed in 2009 after a remarkable 25-year run. Parasole Restaurant Holdings pulled the plug on its flagship in favor of a gimmicky reboot called Il Gatto, which sputtered out after two years. The prime Lake-and-Hennepin real estate is now occupied by the appropriately named Primebar, which opened last week.

Phil Roberts, the Parasole kingpin responsible for Figlio's demise, doesn't sugarcoat the situation, bless his heart. "Closing Figlio was the biggest [expletive deleted] mistake I've ever made in my life," he said. "I had no idea of the reservoir of affection and brand equity that came from serving a thousand people a day for 25 years."

He does now, and he's got the e-mails and phone calls to prove it. That intense loyalty and name recognition weren't lost on Kam Talebi, the savvy CEO of Kaskaid Hospitality, operator of world-dominating Crave. Which is why Talebi is reviving the storied Figlio name in the Shops at West End space currently occupied by his Sopranos Italian Kitchen (5331 W. 16th St., St. Louis Park, www.sopranosmn.com).

"We're privileged to bring an iconic brand back to life," said Talebi. "We did our own test marketing, and there wasn't one person who didn't know about Figlio. The positive nature of the brand is really exciting."

Diners with long memories will remember that Figlio (the name is the Italian word for "son") was a groundbreaker. It was the first Twin Cities restaurant to feature a wood-burning pizza oven, and the first to offer fried calamari. Figlio also had a kind of ingrained mojo that appealed to an enviably wide demographic, drawing an all-ages and all-incomes crowd from lunch to late-night. For many, the restaurant and bar was the site of their first after-midnight dining experience, first cocktail, first date "or first divorce," said Roberts with a laugh. "We want to bring back all of that nostalgia," said Talebi.

Sopranos chef J.P. Samuelson will work with Parasole's crew to identify and revive beloved Figlio dishes, including the tortellini stuffed with cheese, prosciutto and peas and smothered in a cream sauce, a dish so popular that it headlined the "Can't Get over Figlio?" section of Il Gatto's menu.

Samuelson may be one of the few Twin Cities chefs of his generation who didn't collect a paycheck from Figlio. "But I do have a lot of memories of the place," he said. "The challenge is going to be staying true to the original but updating it."

In other words, don't expect a Figlio museum. "We're going to leverage that history, definitely," said Talebi. "But we're also going to look to J.P. for inspiration with the northern Italian and Mediterranean-inspired food that he does so well."

Prices will hover in the $8 to $12 range at lunch and $10 to $24 at dinner. Like its Uptown predecessor, Figlio 2.0 will also focus on a major happy hour; I can already taste the Bloody Marys.

Talebi is promising a decor overhaul (directed by Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm responsible for Sopranos as well as the previous tenant, the short-lived Ringo), emphasizing a more open-plan dining room and a retooled circular bar that will mimic the Calhoun Square original. The kitchen is getting a few tweaks, too, including the addition of a wood-burning pizza oven and a chef's table.

The deal happened fast: Negotiations between Kaskaid and Parasole started just six weeks ago. The project is on an aggressive timetable: Sopranos' last day is July 29, and the goal is to open Figlio on Sept. 24.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. "Let's just say that it's a business arrangement that's mutually beneficial," said Roberts. "It's in both of our interests that we do everything to make this successful on an ongoing basis. But we're leaving Figlio in the best possible hands. It was always our intention to reopen it. Funny thing is, we even talked about the West End."

It should come as no surprise that Talebi was a Figlio fan, from way back. "Figlio and Palomino were my two favorite restaurants when I was growing up," he said. Can it be a coincidence that his Crave now occupies the former Palomino space in downtown Minneapolis, and that Talebi is directing Figlio's second act? "It's ironic, anyway," he said.

As for Sopranos, which is barely a year old, "It had a great stay, and we've been happy with it," said Talebi. "But this was such a unique opportunity. I couldn't let it pass by."

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib.

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