New York City has been swept up in porchetta madness the last few years, as one chef after another has tried to best their rivals with their version of the boneless, well-seasoned, Italian pork roast that originated in Rome and is said to have been eaten there since the days of Emperor Nero. I’ve watched this one-upsmanship with distant envy—and one lovely tasting trip—as the only good porchettas I’ve ever found in Minnesota are the ones you cook yourself. (Try Buon Giorno in Lilydale or Ready Meats in northeast Minneapolis for good uncooked versions.)
But that was then. The day Il Gatto opened, Minnesota entered a new and glorious era: We now have a porchetta to rival New York’s finest—and one that any pork-lover in the state must taste immediately! It’s the work of Matt Kempf, Il Gatto’s new chef and a veteran of local fine-dining kitchens, including À Rebours, Goodfellow’s, and Red. He tells me that Il Gatto’s porchetta is just a simple pork shoulder, coated with sage, garlic, rosemary, and a lot of other herbs, then wrapped with a skin-on pork belly, painstakingly roasted at both high and low heat, and basted until it is served to you as a glistening layer cake of porky perfection.
The exterior, the cracklings, is shatteringly crisp and so good it may as well be candy. Beneath that is a quivering layer of scrumptious fat. Beneath that is meat as tender as cake. This dish is served with lovely roast potatoes with caramelized edges and fresh bitter greens. Set that astonishing plate next to a good, inexpensive red wine and the utterly craveable French fries (the same as the ones served at Il Gatto’s sister restaurant, Salut Bar Américain, here dusted with Parmesan and fresh parsley) and you have the restaurant that Figlio, whose former Calhoun Square space Il Gatto occupies, should have been turned into five years ago.
Better late than never. The steak pizzaiola, cooked over a wood fire, is the best I’ve ever had in Minnesota and perfectly done. The bucatini carbonara, made with America’s best prosciutto, La Quercia, is savory and creamy in just the right way. The Il Gatto burger is excellent: An abundantly seasoned, well charred beef patty that actually is able to match and enhance strong flavors like Stickney Hill goat cheese and arugula. The pastries, by local legend (and Aquavit and La Belle Vie alum) Adrienne Odom, are worth a trip on their own. I was particularly awed by the budino, a traditional Italian steamed pudding made from chocolate cake crumbs, a technique that produces a final cake that is both subtle and intense at the same time. This budino is served with a deeply concentrated chocolate sauce which works with the cake like a bass pedal on an organ, amplifying the dish in waves.
Il Gatto does have one problem: The restaurant bills itself as a seafood place when its strengths are elsewhere. I was in Philadelphia recently and got to try one of that city’s signature sandwiches, Dinic’s sliced roast-pork sandwich with lush meat mounded into a roll with broccoli raab and sharp provolone. If Il Gatto served their porchetta that way, I think we’d have a sandwich out-of-state-visitors would make pilgrimages to. I’m just saying. But however you serve it, Il Gatto is ready to put Minnesota on the national porchetta map.
3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.
Open 4:30 p.m.–1 a.m. Monday–Thursday; 4:30 p.m.–2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30-4 p.m. lunch Saturday and Sunday.