The details are unimportant, but let’s just say that my first encounter with Italian Eatery was not a favorable one. That was in January, and I stayed away, for months.
Then a friend began to extol its virtues. Admittedly, this person’s notion of red sauce barely exceeds ketchup and hot water. So when a food-obsessed cousin began to gush — his e-mails peppered with superlatives along the lines of “stunning” and “sublime” — I took notice. I trust his taste.
Sure, this much-maligned meal is easy to mock, starting with its silly, Brangelina-esque (sorry, Brangelexit-esque) breakfast-lunch portmanteau. But I’m a confirmed brunchist, right down to memorizing every dictate and food-porn image in those breathless Best Brunch! magazine compilations.
The Italian Eatery (also known as i.e.) conversion occurred, predictably, over pancakes. Wait, pancakes? At an Italian restaurant? Absolutely, when the key ingredient is polenta. And, yes, the word “sublime” applies. Surprisingly light and tender, they’re dressed with a wonderfully tart lemon curd, a fine foil to the cornmeal’s subdued sweetness. Consider me a convert.
The rest of the egg-centric menu pleases, too, with dishes that feel proprietary yet familiar, ranging from a Benedict built with toasted focaccia, thick slices of smoky ham and a lively paprika-laced hollandaise to a clever play on the ubiquitous rice bowl, this time calling upon crisped-up risotto and then burying it under a cool salsa verde, crunchy pickled vegetables and a fried egg with a runny yolk. What a great idea.
Best to begin with a holdover from the dinner menu, a shareable dish that’s most emblematic of the kitchen’s less-is-more, fresh-is-best credo. It’s a mound of creamy house-made ricotta — tangy from its goat’s milk roots — that’s drizzled with a notably fruity olive oil and served with spears of sturdy grilled bread (one of the few items not prepared on the premises). So simple, so delicious.
I ended up ordering it at every evening visit, along with what turns out to be the menu’s No. 1-selling appetizer: octopus, the meaty tentacles tenderized by an overnight marinade in red wine and balsamic vinegar, and then grilled until they exude a smoky char. No wonder it’s such a crowd-pleaser.
Ditto the meatballs, jumbo things composed of the classic pork-veal-beef trio, brimming with oregano and rosemary and liberally brushed with a sauce of slow-roasted San Marzano tomatoes. Similarly satisfying are the scallops, tinted caramel in a hot pan but not giving up a modicum of juiciness, and each bite cleverly infused with various gradations of fennel.
Treats abound in other corners of the menu. Encountering the side dish of roasted baby potatoes — the skins crisped, almost blistered, with steam rising from the tender, moist flesh — felt like being granted a wish, especially when paired with the ultra-creamy polenta infused with nutty buckwheat.
Lemon-scented chicken thighs, roasted with the meat juicy, the skin crispy, make for an ideal date-night meal for comfort-food seekers. And one of the prettiest salads I’ve encountered in ages calls upon a rainbow of crunchy beets, sliced thin as parchment and dabbled in a vivid, wonderfully complementary orange-lemon vinaigrette.
All in the details
There’s a reason why owners Eric and Vanessa Carrara are thriving while five other Italian restaurants that also debuted in 2015 — Il Foro, Scena Tavern, Parella, Zio and Z Italiano — have folded. They’re sharp restaurateurs.
Their well-trained service staff has its act together, and then some. The charming setting erases all traces of its former lives (a pizzeria and, before that, a service station), with its delightful indoor/outdoor bar, dual dining rooms (one with a wall lined with 10,000-plus wine bottle corks, all collected, one at a time, from the couple’s previous restaurant gigs) and warm and welcoming rustic Umbrian farmhouse vibe.
The bar program boasts a wine list that reads like a midpriced Italian travelogue (with major layovers in Piedmont and Tuscany), and bar manager Brad Drouin shakes up an appealing collection of $10 craft cocktails. Menu prices fall in line with the near-Lake Nokomis neighborhood, with a special shout-out to the diner-friendly two-tier pasta price structure. Yeah, there’s plenty to like here.
A cautionary note
Those pastas, all prepared in-house, are the menu’s centerpiece, and they’re where the kitchen’s wobbliness is most evident. The good ones really stand out. Witness tiny shells splashed with a terrific Bolognese, the sauce clinging to the pasta thanks to the sneaky addition of silky chicken livers. Or spaghetti stained with squid ink and tossed with white wine-steamed clams and finished with a rich compound butter perfumed with sea urchin.
But others were a bit of a mess, overwrought or ill-conceived. Not disastrous, just not memorable; the kind of dinner that you halfheartedly consume as you push it around the plate, kicking yourself for not ordering the short ribs. Because, people, the short ribs? A knockout.
That difference between nuance and timid comes up, time and again. So many of these dishes call for big, unabashedly bold flavors, but there’s a current of caution running through the menu. That red sauce would be unstoppable with more garlic (and more salt), that squid ink spaghetti would flourish with a more pronounced dried chile bite, and the bucatini’s fennel sausage would come alive with a heavier oregano accent.
Perhaps there are too many cooks in the collaborative kitchen: Adria Davidson is credited with the menu’s development, while Stephanie Cornelius runs the show, assisted by Najil Bagdadi and Anna Jiang.
That might explain the inconsistencies. Here’s just one example: On one visit, fluffy gnocchi — fueled by ricotta and finished with traces of an unassuming butter sauce and a bit of Grana Padano — was a delicate delicacy, a joy to behold. On another, they were rubbery pellets, ponderously drowning in dairy. Huh?
Still, the Carraras are on to something, and their formula — one that’s inspired by Italian cooking, rather than trying to rigidly emulate it in a faraway land — is clearly improving with age. Eric grew up in a restaurant-owning family in Erie, Pa. (“My grandfather bought a restaurant so that we could all have Sunday dinner together,” he said) and came to Minneapolis to study finance at the University of Minnesota.
A few credits shy of graduation, he left school and followed his passion — restaurants — working for the D’Amicos and the Broders before becoming general manager at Zelo, always with the goal of opening his own place.
He and Vanessa married six years ago, and they landed on this former Carbone’s quite by accident, after four-plus years of rejecting countless sites. It’s two miles from their house, and close to Vanessa’s childhood home.
“So many things aligned, all at once,” said Eric. “Our vision is to bring something back to a neighborhood that means so much to my wife.”
In that, they have clearly succeeded. An expansion is already in the works, but in the meantime, what the Carraras have already created would be a welcome addition to any corner of the Twin Cities. Starting with those pancakes.