Since Italian cuisine is routinely singled out as Americans’ favorite foreign fare, it’s a miracle that most restaurant kitchens aren’t knee-deep in gnocchi. But here in the Twin Cities, we’re not exactly awash in Italian restaurants. Serious ones, anyway.
That’s about to change. Not one, not two, but three high-profile Italian restaurants are opening in Minneapolis in the next few months. When it rains, it pours, right? Get out your umbrellas.
Along with a similar culinary embrace, the newcomers share another common trait: They’re reviving previous restaurant properties. The first, dormant for four years, ranks as one of the country’s most spectacular art deco settings. The second is replacing a hotel venue that burned bright, flamed out, then chugged along under the radar. The third, a fabled Uptown address, is getting another shot at the spotlight after a two-year downturn.
Exciting, right? Meet the chefs driving all three soon-to-open projects.
Restaurant: Parella, a partnership between restaurateur Michael Larson (Digby’s) and chef Todd Macdonald.
Location: The Calhoun Square space most closely associated with the 25-year home of Figlio (and its follow-up flop, Il Gatto) and empty since 2013, after the abrupt exit of short-lived Primebar (3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.).
Chef: Todd Macdonald.
His first job: Making salads at Ciatti’s in the Galleria in Edina as a high schooler. After training at the New England Culinary Institute (his first internship was for chef Kevin Cullen at Goodfellow’s during its Conservatory era), Macdonald cooked with starry chefs in Boston (Ken Oringer, among others) and New York City (David Bouley, Shea Gallante) and ran his own kitchens (two Italian restaurants and a high-end gastropub) before returning to his hometown with his wife, certified sommelier Mary Macdonald, to open their own restaurant. “We explored a lot of spaces, but nothing came to fruition,” said Macdonald. “By chance, we met Michael through a culinary executive recruiter.”
What to expect: “We’re going to do modern Italian, and not anything specific to any region,” he said. “Italy has such diversity when it comes to food, and different regions lend themselves to different seasonality.”
Crudo, naturally: “We’ll have a good selection of different fish and shellfish, and probably some oysters, too,” he said. “The crudo bar will be a nice focal point and showpiece in the dining room.”
Ghosts of Figlio: Macdonald has big plans for the kitchen’s wood-burning oven, a decades-old Figlio fixture. “I love that thing,” he said. “We’re going to give it a bit of a face-lift; it’s looking a bit beat down at the moment. But it’s beautiful. I also want a wood-fired grill. I love it when you walk into a restaurant with a wood-fired grill, and it smells like a campfire. It’s so comforting, and hearty, and rustic. We’ll do pizzas, but they’re not going to be a major part of our thing. We’re going to use the oven for things like whole-roasted Italian branzino, or a nice Italian calamari stew, things that will pick up that smoky flavor.”
Pastas, too: “We’ll have fresh, and dried, a good mix, and also some stuffed pastas,” he said. “We’ll also have a traditional selection of meats and cheeses. It’s a nice communal way to start the meal, and I really like that sensibility. As much as we can, we’re going to showcase the meats they’re doing at Red Table Meat Co. Their products are so fantastic.”
Renovation in progress: “The last inception of this place was Primebar, and I don’t know what they did, but it’s not pretty,” he said. “It’s a cave in here. We’re going to lighten the place up, and make it feel bright and airy and open. They put in a gigantic bar, but we’re chopping that in half and making more room for dining.”
Returning to his hometown: “I love the chef culture here,” he said. “Everyone here is so incredibly supportive of one another. I’m used to the cutthroat environment of New York City, but here, everyone looks out for everyone else. Being a transplant, I don’t have connections with purveyors, and people have been so helpful with making introductions.”
The bar: Expect classic cocktails, plus an all-Italian wine list created by Mary Macdonald.
Opening: Macdonald said he’s aiming for a late-June/early July debut, serving lunch, dinner and late-night daily.
Restaurant: Monello, the work of Jester Concepts (Borough, Parlour, Coup d’Etat, Marche, Maple Tavern).
Location: The former Porter & Frye in the Hotel Ivy (1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., www.monellompls.com).
Chef: Mike DeCamp.
His first job: Washing dishes at Chez Foley in Wayzata. He moved to D’Amico Cucina in downtown Minneapolis when he was 17 years old — which explains his Young Chef nickname (shorthand: YC) — then followed chef Tim McKee to La Belle Vie when it opened in Stillwater in 1998. After a few years in Chicago (including the city’s top-rated NoMI), DeCamp returned to the Twin Cities to help launch La Belle Vie when it relocated to 510 Groveland in Minneapolis. He remained for nine-plus years. “It was hard to say goodbye,” he said. “I credit Tim with everything I’ve accomplished, from the beginning to forever, and so it was harder to say goodbye to Tim than to the restaurant, if that makes sense. But La Belle Vie will always have a little piece of my heart.”
Crudo country: “We’re planning a lot of crudos, although now it seems that we have to be different from other Italian restaurants opening this year,” said DeCamp. “You can’t really hide anything when it comes to crudo, and I really like that. You’re forced to focus on the freshness, and the quality of the ingredients. And we’ll also have a lot of pasta, a lot of filled pastas.”
His cooking style: “We’re keeping it simple,” he said. “We’ll put a lot into it, but we’ll keep it simple. We’ll be featuring a lot of vegetables and fruits. I don’t like to cook things too heavy, I like keeping it light and fresh-tasting.”
The Italian map: “We’re basically focusing on the coasts, although Italy is basically one giant coast,” he said. “Don’t tell the Italians I said that. They’ll be mad at me. We’re intentionally keeping it broad. The focus will change as the seasons change.”
Upstairs, downstairs: The layout will follow the Borough-Parlour model, with the Monello dining room on the street level, and the affiliated bar — named Constantine — directly below. Together, they seat roughly 100 (with another 40 on the patio), and both are currently under construction. A lobby bar, featuring an array of snacks and libations, will also materialize.
A hidden talent: “I’m a baker. It’s one of my favorite pastimes,” said DeCamp. “I try to keep that a secret, but not anymore. It’s nice to do something a little different.” Not that he’s not relying upon the services of a pastry chef. She’s Amanda Parker, formerly of W.A. Frost & Co.
Good morning: As a hotel restaurant, Monello will serve breakfast. “We’ll stay true to ourselves while making sure that we please people,” DeCamp said of the morning menu. “We’ll have the items you’d normally find — frittatas, hash browns, house-baked bagels, things like that — just things that I really like to eat.”
Opening: June, serving breakfast and dinner daily, with lunch to follow.
Restaurant: Il Foro, a partnership between Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald (Smack Shack), Jack Riebel (formerly of Butcher & the Boar and Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant) and Lorin Zinter (formerly of Heyday), the team behind the revival of the Lexington in St. Paul.
Location: The priceless art deco wonder inside the City Center complex, previously home to the Forum, Goodfellow’s, the Paramount Cafe and Mick’s, and dark since 2011 (40 S. 7th St., Mpls., www.il-foro.com).
Chef: Joe Rolle.
His first job: Rolle is a restaurant industry late-bloomer, starting in his late 20s. “I went to three or four different schools,” he said. “I was really good at partying. I could see 30 coming on the horizon, and I hadn’t done anything. Cooking basically saved my life. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me, besides my wife and our daughter.” His kitchen baptism was working for Riebel at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, followed by stints at Butcher & the Boar and Borough.
On the menu: “I’m going to do ‘modern home cooking.’ That’s what’s sticking in my head,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of restraint. We won’t be over-manipulating; there won’t be bells and whistles. No dots, or swooshes, or fancy swirls on the plate. I don’t want to bastardize what Italian cooking is all about. It’s trendy now, but the Italians have been ahead of the local-sustainable-organic game for a thousand years. Italian cooking is about using what’s available to you, plus simplicity. So the menu will be honest, and flavor-forward, with a high crave-ability factor, where you’ll want to come in a few times a week. It’s like the Yum Yum rice bowls at World Street Kitchen: You’re already thinking about the next one while you’re eating one.”
The crudo question: “There will not be a crudo bar, but we’ll have a few crudo mixed in here and there,” he said. As for pastas, “I’m going to start slow,” he said. “But I plan on developing a pretty serious pasta program, fresh and dried, and it will be made in-house.”
An Italian Iron Ranger: Rolle grew up in Chisholm, Minn., immersed in the cooking of his Italian immigrant grandfather. “The more I learn about cooking, the more I learn how good he was,” Rolle said. “He had a garden out at our cabin that was probably half an acre. That’s a big garden for one man. He also raised pheasants, and we hunted lots of wild game, things like venison, grouse and partridge. Me and my dad would shoot it, and grandpa would cook it. We’d shoot a deer, and we’d back the truck into the garage, and he’d be waiting, sharpening a knife. ‘Blood hungry and meat thirsty,’ he would say.” At Il Foro, Rolle plans to serve a variation of his grandfather Dario’s stewed rabbit.
His new Italian competition: “I think having three new Italian restaurants is going to be great for the city, and I’m proud to be building a part of that,” he said. “I know the other two chefs, Todd and YC, and I’m super-excited that I’m going to have two new places to go on my day off. I think all three of us are going to deliver.”
Opening: Early summer, serving lunch and dinner daily.