Apprehension greets you as you approach.

You may follow a long, dark alleyway, by the Deja Vu strip club, before spotting signage that resembles a logo from some wellness utopia that peddles sea moss gel by the jar. You may wonder if the gallery-sized windows are for diners to look out (less likely — it's a view of the parking lot) or for onlookers to peer in (see portrait of Christian Bale, circa "American Psycho," on the wall). Welcome to Dario.

As you enter through an arched doorway framed in gold, as if primed for a catwalk, you may question if the venue is better off as a showroom for the kind of influencers who congregate for selfies first, food secondarily. Although it may not immediately look the part, Dario is in the restaurant business. And it's very good at it.

Since opening in late January, the restaurant has coddled trigger-happy diners who accumulate as many Resy notifications as they do TikTok followers, all jostling for a reservation. Three months in, nothing has changed. Getting in before 9:30 p.m. remains a challenge.

One way or another, the payoffs are worth the wait — even for dishes that are better photographed than eaten. I wasn't smitten by beet salad the first time, nor the second, though I admired the way the beets are slivered into ribbons as wide and thin as pappardelle, coiled into a nest, resting atop a rich, if slightly joyless gribiche sauce. I wish the Oysters Dario wasn't as overwrought as it looked: An appealingly funky, deeply spicy mound of beef tartare crowns each oyster, which is dabbed with lime ice, evocative of 7-Up, that blights it all. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful dish, as is the cucumbers, which eat milder than it looked: over a swirl of whipped feta, under yellow trout roe, freckled with sesame seeds, promising the kind of acid and seasoning that never comes.

Alas, to discredit Dario for going for the 'gram is a bit like buying an iPhone solely for its functionality. In most cases, Dario delivers food that's both a sight to behold and a joy to eat. You'll find this is generally the case across their wide array of pastas, which come courtesy of Rachael Cornelius McLeod, who sells artisanal noodles and filled pastas through her own business, in addition to making them at the restaurant's glass-walled pasta room. Joe Rolle, Dario's chef and co-owner, cooks and sauces them.

The best among the 12 pastas tends to be the filled, sweeter ones. Butternut squash-filled scarpinocc, a type of pasta resembling a dimpled candy wrapper, is the best place to start. The filling is silky and beautifully caramelized without being cloying because there's just enough aged balsamic to cut through it all. Equally compelling is the doppio ravioli. An order comes with six parcels resembling oversized KitKats, glossy with brown butter and honey, filled with sunchoke purée on one side, ricotta on the other, and strewn with whole hazelnuts, so the nuttiness sharpens. Few pastas in the Twin Cities compare.

But few chefs have Rolle's pedigree. His talents run far and deep, having led kitchens at Martina, Borough and Il Foro. Dario, though, is his own. It's an opportunity to imbue his Italian heritage with modernist (New American, quasi-Asian) influences.

It's an opportunity to showcase the team's steely exhibitionist tendencies, too. That Christian Bale portrait and frenetic open kitchen juxtaposed against the teal, toylike booths. The carefully placed spotlights, flattering the faces of fellow diners from every angle. The chairs that (comfortably) prop them up like dolls, with '90s power ballads and punk metal in tow. These tendencies seem to extend to the brazen, sometimes uneven seasoning — and it may be why the other pastas don't rise to the same heights.

In March, I had a Bolognese so salty it could cauterize wounds; a malfadini so lemony and greasy that it overpowered the seafood and breadcrumbs, respectively; and a gummy crab pasta more deeply acidic than floral, and spicy enough to swell our lips. At one point, the doppio ravioli, a running favorite, was drowned in butter.

Other dishes bore the brunt as well. Slender, flowering cauliflower ceded its flavor to the brown butter it was swimming in, while an overseasoned (too sweet, too sharp) char siu was lost in the fermented black bean clam sauce.

On the opposite end are dishes that were puzzlingly bland. Crunchy vegetable salad tasted more of heat, less of vegetables. And a strangely proportioned endive salad was underdressed with what seemed like a watered-down Gorgonzola dressing that imparted funk without much depth (a better use of Gorgonzola is in the sauce for short rib agnolotti).

To Dario's credit, many of these transgressions improved over time. During my most recent visit, in mid-April, the seasoning was more dialed-in. The crab pasta wasn't as bright nor as assertively salty. The kitchen's foibles with texture started to disappear. "Al dente" graduated from undercooked at its core to something tenaciously chewy, yet pliable.

My least favorite dish — a goat cheese mezzaluna that was unpleasantly gamy and a little sodden, nothing like the promised "elevated" Hot Pockets — startled the kitchen when I didn't take the half-finished plate to go. But the similar dish that replaced it on the menu, this time with anolini (a type of pasta shaped like a cartoon sunshine), was superb.

The risk-averse may settle on, say, spicy rigatoni (hot but not bothered; judiciously sauced), a Parmesan cappelletti with truffle butter, or the slightly more austere risotto cheered with a rainfall of black truffle, and emerge happy. The same cannot be said of the ricotta dumplings, which arrived at our table looking like pale, doughy popovers that could benefit from a sear or a few textural accoutrements.

It's a misconception to measure Dario's strengths by its pasta program. Don't mind the pork, nor the skate (overcooked) — there is a pressed brick chicken: uniformly juicy, crisp-skinned, accompanied by a sauce that sang of capers, minus the salt. There's also a precisely cooked filet served simply over a peppercorn sauce that's less creamy and more nuanced than the ones you've probably had prior. I challenge you to find a better au poivre in the Twin Cities.

It's not a misconception to expect Dario to falter with desserts. It reflects a worrying industry trend where dessert programs are going by the wayside, relegated to uninspired flans and a cobble of sweet, listless textures. Dario's pineapple and coconut is proof: The overly sweet sorbet atop it wasn't lancing enough to foil the enormity of what ate like a congealed mass of canned coconut milk. And a caramel apple budino was reminiscent of cough syrup.

Rising ingredient and labor costs may account for the lack of a serious pastry program. It may not atone for some of the more colorfully priced dishes. Yes, $14 is a little excessive for four fleeting bites of the otherwise excellent hiramasa crudo; still, it's a steal compared with the endive salad and cucumbers, each $17. I don't know if $25 justifies a conservatively sized fusilli pomodoro, either. These prices equal, and in some cases surpass, the ones at the toniest establishments in New York and Los Angeles, where rents and wages are far less forgiving.

Does Dario have any business charging those prices? Yes, should the talents of the kitchen fully materialize. You'll spend dearly for a meal here — even without $16 drinks, which are not to be missed. Stephen Rowe, who spent a decade creating cocktails at Marvel Bar, is the other Dario co-owner, and his bar churns out some of the finer cocktails in the Twin Cities. My favorite among them, the Kelly Kapowski, pairs rose vermouth, crème de peche and Chituatan pineapple rum.

It is entirely possible to dine here without the show, by ordering carefully (the chicken is $29 and the doppio ravioli is $24) and forgoing the dishes you've seen on social media. Grilled cabbage ($15) isn't built like the other photogenic dishes, but it's hearty and flavorful — a dish I'd reorder; while potatoes look similarly unsung, I'll fondly remember them for those crisp layers of spud and onion, buried under that stupendously rich yet airy comté ($16). As fashion runs its course, and if pink ever goes out of favor, don't forget these dishes. They ground us in time and place, reminding us always to count our blessings.


⋆⋆ ½ Highly Recommended

Location: 323 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-614-2560,

Hours: Sun.-Thu. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.

Recommended dishes: Doppio Ravioli, Butternut Squash Scarpinocc, Hiramasa Crudo, Rigatoni alla Vodka, Brick Chicken, Potatoes.

Prices: Raw bar $17-$30, vegetables $14-$17, pastas $23-$28, fish and meat $30-$62. Top-priced item is the 14-ounce Niman Ranch New York strip.

Beverages: Stephen Rowe's creative cocktails mirror the Italian-Asian flavors from chef Joe Rolle's menu ($16, spirit-free $14). There's also a handful of beers ($7-$9), the wine list has about a dozen offerings by the glass ($14-$22) and a lengthy list of whites and reds by the bottle, with a few sparkling, orange and rosés sprinkled in.

Tip or no tip: Standard tipping model; 5% health and wellness surcharge added to all checks.

Noise level: Comfortable.

Worth noting: In addition to metered street parking and valet, Target Center's Ramp C is a short walk away. Dinner reservations can be hard to come by during peak days and hours.

What the stars mean:

⋆⋆⋆⋆ Exceptional

⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended

⋆⋆ Recommended

⋆ Satisfactory

Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Dario co-owner Stephen Rowe's role at Marvel Bar.