Reinventing risotto

When it comes to Italian food, people fall into two camps: Those who love it, and those who really, really love it. Jonathan Hunt is of the latter

Growing up in Hutchinson — about as far from Italy as you can get and still pronounce “spaghetti” — he landed a high-school job in a café specializing in homemade sausage, meatballs and pizza. The day they let him near the stove, there was no turning back. Soon, he was turning out risotto at home, “though I didn’t exactly know what it was.” Something about rice and cheese.

Never mind. It convinced him to attend culinary school, where he gained a deeper appreciation of Italian cooking, based, he states, on “simple ingredients that work well together.”

Stints at D’Amico & Sons, Campiello and Pane Vino Dolce only confirmed the kid’s addiction so, before you could say “Al Vento,” he took off on a whirlwind trip through Italy (Milan to Sicily and back in a week, with the speeding tickets to prove it), then opened his venture of that name in Southwest.

When Giorgio’s closed and left Uptown’s lovers of homey Italian dining in the lurch, Hunt reopened the space as Rinata (“reborn,” in homage), again making his own way-too-delicious bread, cranking his noodles by hand, churning his signature gelato, and stirring the risotto of his youth.

The dish still starts off with imported Arborio rice and ends with a toss of nutty Parmesan, but in between, he’s reinvented it. “I asked myself, ‘Why not incorporate a ragu [a rich, meat-based sauce] into the rice?’” Hearing no opposition — back in Italy, they’d be issuing him another ticket for violating culinary law — he went ahead. John’s hearty-as-all-heck ragu is based on boar’s meat (an Italian favorite that might not fly in Hutchinson) from Houston, Minnesota’s Buffalo Gal. He sears a succulent roast, deglazes it with red wine and a splash of balsamic vinegar, then tosses in pinches of rosemary, thyme and bay leaf, along with crushed tomatoes. Next, the roast is braised over long, slow heat until it shreds at the mere thought of a knife. Into that waiting ragu it goes, to soak up still more flavor while the rice is cooking.

Hunt adheres to tradition in its preparation, browning it ever so lightly, along with onion and garlic; adding a dash of white wine and vegetable stock, stirring; then repeating the pour-and-stir process three times until the rice is just shy of al dente.

At home, this is just about when you’d serve it, but a restaurant diner won’t sit drumming his fingers for all those rounds of elbow grease. So Hunt cools it on a sheet pan, then, for every order, combines the rice and the boar ragu, along with a few portabellas. It gets a final fling of Parm and herbs and hits the table steaming. In fact, the night I tried it, so did every diner in the place; it’s that popular (and at $12.75, a steal).

Speaking of steals, Rinata deducts $2 from any and every dish ordered during happy hour, 4:30–6 p.m., and then again from 10 p.m.–1 in the morning. Sweet!

2451 Hennepin Ave. S.