Tim McKee at Il Gatto

Yes, the rumors are true: Tim McKee, James Beard Award winner, head of La Belle Vie, Sea Change, Solera, and Smalley’s, has taken over culinary operations at Il Gatto, the Italian Uptown underperformer. Here’s my preliminary review:

When I first heard McKee was taking over Il Gatto, I actually thought someone was playing an elaborate practical joke on me. No way would McKee have anything to do with a restaurant so artless that they served thin slices of delicate raw fish on gimmicky pink salt rocks so that you could watch your food sizzle up before your eyes like a vampire in the sun. But no, it’s true! McKee now has the same sort of operating agreement with Parasole (the company that owns Il Gatto and much else on that corner—including Chino Latino and Cafeteria) that he has with Sea Change. What sort of operating agreement is that? McKee is in charge of the menu and cooking staff; Parasole deals with everything else. McKee’s first act was to install Jim Christianson, longtime sous chef at Sea Change, as Il Gatto’s chef de cuisine. Christianson has worked for McKee since the days when La Belle Vie was in Stillwater, and savvy diners will keep in mind his deep experience lately with seafood; everything I’ve tried off the new Il Gatto menu that involves seafood has been exquisite. I visited Il Gatto this week and had a wonderful meal, then, I did a later interview with both McKee and Phil Roberts, the founder and head of Parasole.

The Food: Italian food’s great problem in Minnesota is that we like it so much we’re happy to call middling stuff great; I went to Il Gatto feeling skeptical. I left feeling very hopeful. Why? The swordfish! Preserved in oil—in the great Italian tradition—and paired with ripe heirloom tomatoes, every bite was meaty and weighty and savory, like some beautiful and rich mid-point between pork and sushi mackerel, and ideally Italian, it was nothing but perfect ingredients presented lightly.

The Fritto Misto: I had this at Il Gatto before and it was heavy-handed. Now, a giant crispy fried seafood and vegetable platter is gossamer and light; sweet little trembling scallops and perfectly cooked shrimp were highlights. Squeeze a little lemon, raise a beer, and it doesn’t get any better than this.

Uovo Fonduta:
Good golly! A barely poached egg swimming in frothy Fontina cheese fondue served is with big hunks of wood-grilled bread and a handful of thin, roast asparagus spears. This might be the most sensual dish of the year. Drag strips of grilled bread through the foamy, lush, salty and unbelievably tasty fondue with someone you love, lick your fingers, then plan your trip to Italy.

Ravanelli: Most people will look at the still-too-long Il Gatto menu and never notice the little section of salads where the ravanelli is hidden; others will read the description and think: Radishes, anchovies, orange zest, why bother? Don’t be one of those people! Order this stuff no matter what you do. Fat, crispy, slightly licorice-tasting radishes come with loads of orange zest. This is the sort of salad that just astonishes you for being so good you want to gobble it like an ice cream sundae. Really. Believe me! I know you don’t, but really. This is a life-changing radish salad.

Pizzas: I tried a few of Il Gatto’s pizzas and had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love the boundary-pushing—for Minnesota—toppings, like Mario Battali’s favorite guiancale, paired currently with fresh figs. On the other hand, I didn’t think the execution was all there. Burrata pizza, for instance, used the costly super-fresh mozzarella to no effect whatsoever, the cheese disappearing into the crust, leaving nothing behind but a gritty tasting pesto and pine nuts. I wished the crust had more oomph. More oomph how? I don’t know, pick one: More wood-smoke and char; more biscuity flavors from a different yeast or starter and longer proofing; more depth from something mixed into the dough, be it beer or miso or I don’t care. I told McKee and Roberts that I didn’t think the pizza crusts were up to par. What did they say to my effrontery? See below.

Thoughts On Things I Didn’t Try: The menu changes at Il Gatto are basically rolling out in stages; I focused on dishes I knew to be new. Since my visit they’ve added more McKee/Christianson dishes like a pasta with pistachio pesto and laughing bird shrimp. I feel very excited and hopeful to try these! Everything I’ve had so far at the new Il Gatto leads me to believe we may be looking at the birth of the best Italian restaurant in town. Or you know, we may not. I’ve heard from various chefs over the years that Parasole has a culture of using food costs as the excuse for everything they don’t want to do. Are fancy items like laughing bird shrimp, fished sustainably from Caribbean waters, really on Il Gatto’s menu to stay? I’d say we need to check back in the dog-days of January, when Minnesota restaurant crowds are at their thinnest, to assess their resolve. But, barring that, I talked to Roberts and McKee about their new, shocking joint venture.

The Conversation: Why the big changes at Il Gatto? Phil Roberts told me: “I took a 30,000-foot look down on Uptown, and thought: You know, I can count about 2,000 [restaurant] seats on the corner of Lake and Hennepin.” Holy cow! Is that true? Roberts guessed yes, counting: Stella’s, Chino, Bar Abilene, the Independent, and so on. “But culinarily, they’re all of the same wavelength,” said Roberts. (Sing it sister! You’re telling me; drinks and a burger anyone? Except Lucia’s, of course.) “I thought, they’re all culinarily in that range of 7 out of 10,” continued Roberts. “I thought: we really need to spike and break-through culinarily.” So a mere eight weeks or so ago Roberts called McKee to talk about what they could do. Roberts and McKee go way back—really way back; McKee worked as a Figlio line-cook to put himself through college, and has always credited Figlio for teaching him how to cook fast. What’s in it for McKee? The challenge, he says, but also the chance to establish Christianson in his own kitchen. (McKee’s commitment to building the careers of his longtime cooks is well known.)

“If I’m not adding to the conversation, there’s no point to me getting involved,” McKee told me. “Can I do something worthwhile by making my own mortadella? My own ‘nduja? Let’s see.” Yes, let’s see! I would like to see some homemade ‘nduja, the Calabrian spreadable sausage. I think I’d like to see it next to that fonduta (see above) and a bottle of wine. McKee is also making his own pancetta, currently on offer as an appetizer with figs. In addition to a voice in the Italian conversation and a place for Christianson to show us what he’s got, McKee seems to have gotten some nice travel out of the deal: He and Roberts went to New York to do some Italian eating; Roberts told me he thought Mario Batali’s Babbo has devolved—“it’s now one of those places that has more cult status than reality”—but that the new Il Gatto was not unlike Otto, Batali’s pizza restaurant. Which led us to the touchy subject of Il Gatto’s pizza crust: I told people who are at the top of their careers and have made tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in the restaurant game (Parasole spun off and sold Buca and Oceanaire, you’ll recall) that I thought their crust needed work; they told me they liked it, and Roberts said he likes a thicker, more substantial crust, in the style of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. What do you think? “I don’t want to be VPN, we’re not trying to be VPN,” Roberts told me, referring to the association that regulates true Neapolitan pizza. Fair enough. I told Roberts I particularly liked the higher-end, more adventurous pizza toppings like guiancale. “We’re testing the temperature of the water, so to speak,” Roberts told me. “You have to remember that this a pretty conservative town, I mean, tell me: How many sea urchins are you really going to sell in a night?” I don’t know, I think Origami has done quite well selling sea urchins, and so has Marea.

“When we started Il Gatto,” Roberts continued, “We had the best damn porchetta,”—which is true, I loved it—“but it was fatty, and bad for you, and on a twenty-thousand-dollar night we would sell two orders. So what do you do with the rest of that twenty-pound roast? Is it going to be the employee meal? That’s part of what you deal with here in the Twin Cities. If you have that porchetta on your menu, on a good night you’ll sell five orders and get two back because it was too fatty. You know, when Figlio (which Il Gatto replaced) opened, it was the first place to serve calamari. It used to be a cutting edge restaurant, which no one remembers. And there’s still a fettucini alfredo crowd out there; we had to put it on Il Gatto’s menu when we were making twenty orders a night by special request.” I have nothing against fettucini alfredo, I told Roberts, but if fettucini alfredo, why not pasta carbonara? People say they want it but don’t really, Roberts told me. If served a runny egg, people will send a dish back to the kitchen because it’s yucky. So, what do you think of this, dear readers? Do you get a fettucini alfredo crowd because you’re serving Italian burgers, or do you get a fettucini alfredo crowd because we are a fettucini alfredo crowd?

For now, though, Roberts and McKee want your take-away to be that Il Gatto is changing, but not totally changed. “I’ve told Tim, the sky’s the limit here,” said Roberts. “He can really do whatever he wants, culinarily. If he needs a piece of equipment, it’s there for him. And stay tuned: the menu is not ever going to be a fixed thing. It’s going to be ever evolving, ever changing.”

It’s already changed almost unrecognizably. If you want to experience it for yourself, McKee and Roberts say the menu will be mostly migrated to its real, new form in October.

Il Gatto
3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.,
612-822-1688, ilgattominneapolis.com