Flavor // Northern exporsure

Remember way back (your daddy will) when the local icons of Italian dining were Café di Napoli and Mama D’s? One sauce fit all, and it came thick and red. Next we came to learn the magic words “Northern Italian,” taking us beyond the kitchens of Napoli to the world of pesto on our pasta. (See? We don’t even say “noodles” anymore.)

These days, diners on the culinary frontier are venturing beyond those strands of green-laced fettuccini and going all micro-Northern on us, ordering — what’s this? — rice. Well, risotto, the staple of any trattoria worth its wooden spoon from Milan to Venice.

So when Chef Gabriele Lo Pinto (who hails from Genoa and cooked at Edina’s Arezzo) opened his own little trattoria last month, we were ready. He named it Risotto, in honor of the stars on his menu, as sweet and tiny as the 50-seater place itself. What’s more, not only can we worldly Minnesotans choose from half a dozen rotating risotto dishes — chicken, shellfish, Gabriele’s homemade sausage shouting fennel to the rafters, and a lovely summer vegetable rendition — but from two special grains of rice.

First, there’s the plump arborio, a stickier, high-starch kernel that melts a bit upon steady cooking to firm up the dish; then there’s the slimmer carnaroli, a little on the lighter side. Both call for hours of stirring on Gabriele’s part as he moistens the rice with chicken or vegetable stock, drip by drip by drip.

My companion (who hails from Milan) ordered the arborio-based communion of sweet leeks, juicy chicken breast and earthy fragments of porcini, all melded with shavings of pungent Asiago cheese. Not one to mince words, she let only one fall from her lips between spoonfuls: “Excellent.”

I’ll second that. Me, I went for the carnaroli version in which lounged sweet, tender tiger prawns, as curvy as a Fellini heroine. They were joined by husky snippets of radicchio, as coarse and bitter as the film’s chain-smoking hero, to balance the shrimps’ sweetness. A shake or two of black pepper fueled the smoldering romance, and a gilding of nutty Grana Padana cheese assured a happy ending (all $13–$19).

Start with the veal carpaccio, the clams or an insalata — or as I did (and will, forever after), a buxom helping of polpettone di faggiolini, best described as a sturdy soufflé of pureed green beans served in a pool of suave and regal Asiago cream. Do the Italians have a word for “yum”?

Oh, there are a few — three — “official” entrees, too, if you really must, and Gabriele tells me he’s adding a couple of pasta choices, too. But really: With a name like Risotto, why venture beyond perfection? Okay, venture as far as a glass from the Italian-forward and affordable wine list. Now we’re talking!

610 W. Lake St.