"We're going where?"
After hearing this from friends on three occasions, I learned to respond with "the new Figlio" rather than "Il Gatto." Lesson learned: Most of us are really, truly averse to change. It's a good thing that Parasole Restaurant Holdings isn't, at least in this instance, because after 25 fun-loving years, their Figlio was as tired as a "Dynasty" rerun.
The most impressive change -- aside from the noticeable absence of dust, as Figlio could have exhausted a legion of industrial-strength Swiffers -- is the addition of chef Matt Kempf, a Champlin native with a grade-A résumé that includes Goodfellow's and A Rebours.
At its best, his eclectic cooking is appealingly rustic without ignoring critical technical details. While Il Gatto's menu still emphasizes the pasta and pizza of its predecessor, Kempf leads his diners a few adventurous steps off Figlio's predictable culinary path.
From the hearth
The most coveted toy in Kempf's kitchen is clearly the wood-burning grill, and he makes the most of it. Succulent skin-on octopus, poached in lemon juice to make it extra-tender, really blossoms on the grill, as does a plate of blistered asparagus topped with a gently fried egg.
The burgers are hefty, juicy monsters, and the grill's intense heat puts a delectable sear on one of the best steaks in town. Although Kempf serves it four ways, I prefer it straight up, just brushed with a compound butter, which lets the fire and the beef speak for themselves.
Pre- and post-movie grazers have a place here, whether it's $6 platters of well-chosen cured meats (wisely sourced from Iowa's La Quercia and San Francisco's Molinari & Sons) and $5 cheeses or a small, ever-changing selection of cool, briny raw oysters.
I could make a daily habit of Kempf's chicken salad, a wide bowl of lovingly arranged grilled chicken, peppery arugula and big, crunchy croutons, all dressed in a mellow balsamic vinaigrette. As for the gloriously sloppy pork sausage sandwich, "It's real spicy, not Minnesota spicy," explained my server in her plucked-from-the-cast-of-"Fargo" Minnesota accent. No kidding. Kempf's secret: chipotle and jalapeño peppers, with the grill contributing a final sizzle.
Pizza, pizza, pizza
If it were strictly a pizzeria, Il Gatto would be one of the city's top performers. After 25 years of hard use, Figlio's wood-burning oven also received a much-needed rejuvenation, resulting in pizzas of real distinction. The golden, chewy crusts have an agreeable blistered and charred edge, and they're generously topped with well-chosen ingredients, including house-smoked salmon, some of that fabulous house-made pork sausage, smoky shrimp and squeaky fresh house-made mozzarella.
My favorite? A baking sheet-size beauty big enough to feed an army and topped with an appealing blend of sweet onions, olive oil and what tastes like a fistful of fresh thyme.
The leftovers, which were considerable, became my own private Breakfast of Champions the next morning, the sole nod to the kitchen's bigger-is-better aesthetic that makes sense.
Not everything works
Here's what doesn't: At one visit, three of our four entrees arrived with unpleasantly large piles of so-so French fries -- I'm talking a significant percentage of Idaho's agricultural output, more than any sane person could possibly consume, let alone expect to remain hot and crispy -- buried under a blanket of coarsely grated Pecorino cheese. As just one of many of the menu's unpleasantly oversized portions, it became an apt illustration of the subject of value, or at least perceived value. Why not serve a more judicious amount, and make them perfect?
Maybe because Parasole was responsible for the late, great Pronto Ristorante, and a bit of that downtowner's Italian DNA still flows through the company's veins, the pastas at Il Gatto can be pretty swell. At least the ones that get past that nagging elephantine mentality. Especially noteworthy were the beef-pork shoulder meatballs over thick ropes of spaghetti and the hand-cut linguine, dyed with squid ink and tossed with crab and bits of sea urchin.
The menu's seafood entrees are best enjoyed straight-up, with generous portions of salmon, marlin and sea scallops simply embellished with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Also perfect are two wintry options: a slab of tender, flavorful braised short ribs and slow-cooked pork shoulder wrapped in skin-on pork belly. Desserts are fairly standard issue, with one notable exception, a magnificent steamed chocolate cake with salty caramel ice cream.
Familiar but new
Although the Calhoun Square space was gutted and rebuilt, the barely altered tri-part layout will feel familiar to Figlio fans. The sleek, low-key design was by Moschella+Roberts of New York City, the team behind Parasole's good-looking Chino Latino, Manny's Steakhouse and Burger Jones properties.
The restaurant's name is Italian for the cat. Rather than going with straight-up feline references -- outside of the Fancy Feast factory, do cats and dining really mix, at least in this country? -- Il Gatto's visual anchors are several practical-but-sculptural embellishments, including shelves filled with loaves of rustic bread, a tall stack of firewood and a gorgeous, glistening whole salmon showcased on ice under glass.
The wiseacre Parasole brain trust came up with a whole kitty back story that references Southern Italian brothels, a 16th-century pope and an Italian sexual proverb that's too racy for this family newspaper. It's all amusing eatertainery fodder, but as a theme to hang a restaurant on, well, it's a bit of a stretch. Besides, who notices Abyssinians and Korats when the pizza is this good?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757