Here's how cramped tiny Rinata is: Just as we somehow managed to shoehorn ourselves into our seats on an out-of-control-busy Saturday night, two women cloaked in voluminous, calf-length mink coats appeared at the entrance to the dining room.
I watched as their faces quickly computed the mental geometry required to navigate their generously portioned overcoats through that limited real estate. "We're never going to fit," one wisely said to the other. They left.
Personally, I would have stashed the dead animal act in a trunk and kept the reservation. But that's just me. When Giorgio Cherubini opened his Giorgio in just a portion of this space in the early 1990s, it was a revelation, a snug setting that forced reserved Minnesotans to dine in perilously close proximity to one another.
The restaurant endured ups and downs over the years. When Cherubini finally pulled the plug last summer, al Vento chef/owner Jonathan Hunt snapped up the lease.
The ghosts of Giorgio seem to benevolently hover, and that's only appropriate; the name Rinata is rooted in the Italian word for rebirth. Speaking of similarities, fans of al Vento will find familiar elements between the two restaurant's menus. But Rinata isn't a reboot of its predecessors. For one thing, Hunt pretty much skips traditional entrees -- no grilled pork tenderloin or braised lamb shank, unless it's a daily special -- preferring to concentrate on less complicated pastas, pizzas and low-fuss appetizers.
Prices are recession-friendly, and Hunt keeps his stoves burning until 1 a.m. daily. What's not to like?
Familiar with a twist
Rinata isn't a reinventing-the-wheel experience; Hunt is cooking familiar, crowd-pleasing food, and he's often doing it well. Many of the appealing starters recall the kind of easygoing cocktail party fare that I'd expect to encounter from friends who devotes their Saturday afternoons soaking up every syllable of "The Splendid Table" radio broadcast.
That means toasted bread topped with either a succulent duck confit and tangy shards of sun-dried tomatoes or a fetching combination of white beans, roasted Brussels sprouts and bits of pancetta. There's a swell platter of cured meats and mozzarella, and a pleasing array of olives. Nicely plump steamed mussels have a garlicky punch, and there's a lemony kick to tender braised octopus.
Liberally topped pizzas start with golden, chewy crusts. Salads fall in the recognizable Caesar-beet-poached-pear family. A dozen pasta-risotto-gnocchi options anchor the menu. Pastas are made in-house, and Hunt covers the bases: crescents stuffed with Gorgonzola and a bit of zesty short rib ragu, irregular maltagliati splashed with a pork sausage ragu, and wide, rippled pappardelle finished with a broccoli raab and a creamy, spicy tomato sauce.
The generously portioned results can be wonderfully satisfying. Comfort-minded spaghetti, nicely toothy, is dappled with a flavorful tomato sauce and paired with dense, firm meatballs. There's a classic pairing of peas and pancetta with fettuccine.
I most enjoyed the light, beautifully browned gnocchi served with mouth-watering prosciutto-wrapped chicken. Fancy? No. Just what I felt like eating on a Saturday night? Absolutely.
Needs a careful eye
Still, there's rustic, and then there's sloppy, and the kitchen doesn't always seem to grasp the difference. Pizzas have just a bit too much cheese. I love any Caesar that puts garlic front and center, but the ones I sampled were downright harsh. Some flavors -- veal vs. wild boar vs. beef short ribs -- tend to run together rather than stand out.
When the cooking is this uncomplicated, little fixes can have a big impact, whether it's pulling back on the cinnamon -- and toasting the walnuts -- in an otherwise pleasant poached pear salad, or just noticing that a dish is swimming in olive oil and correcting the problem.
Even the printed menu needs attention, and that admonition comes from someone who readily admits his spelling and punctuation limitations.
The back-to-basics desserts -- sambuca-laced tiramisu, a pretty pine-nut tart, house-made gelatos -- aren't standard-setters, but they do the trick.
Hunt has given the shoebox-scaled rooms a let's-go-to-Home-Depot-style makeover. That's a missed opportunity. We can't have enough intimately scaled restaurants, but we're also stuck with more drab in this town than we know what to do with.
I've obviously spent my winter glued to HGTV, because at every meal I found myself wondering how Rinata's cozy but generic setting would fare as the subject du jour on "Color Splash" or "Divine Design." Dear Genevieve, how fast can you get to 25th and Hennepin?
In terms of service, the staff gets it. Well, mostly. An example: Halfway through a meal, we got the dreaded "Are we still working?" query.
My cousin's genial expression immediately soured, and I knew what was coming. To his credit, his delivery wasn't wrapped in a passive-aggressive fake smile. He just told it like it was; how very un-Minnesotan of him. "No one's working here," is what he said. "This is a labor of love."
That he was annoyed by the exasperating yet near-universal misuse of "working" seemed to not register with our otherwise on-the-ball server (For starters, she correctly pronounced "bruschetta" -- broo-SKEH-tah -- a rarity around here. Words matter, right?) She gave him a blank look and then moved on to the next table.
"Baby steps," was all I could say before adding, "Dibs on that last crostini."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757