The cats meow

Saturday night and the streets of Uptown were deserted. Bomb scare? Windchill? Pig flu?

No, cat fever. The entire zipcode had squeezed into the confines of Il Gatto — “the cat” — in Calhoun Square. At the hostess stand, Minnesota Nice gave way to body-checking. Words not entirely in the Christmas spirit were hurled. Bills in high denomination were offered to the keeper of the list.

OK, I exaggerate, but the point is, Parasole, the hospitality corp that’s got a corner on the corner — China Latino and Stella’s, too — decided to retire Figlio and reinvent the space for another run as casual Italian dining. Good idea? Well, just you try to muscle your way in.

Worth the effort? (Wait: Would you repeat the question? The din is pretty loud in here.) Verdict: Kitty rules. The menu is accessible (the only possible threat to a Norwegian palate is the squid-ink pasta with sea urchins, actually the least tasty of the fare we tried, so that gets you off the hook). Service is super-friendly and informed; portions are XXL and suitable for sharing, and the only entrees over $20 fall in the seafood column. And they’re practically giving away the wine, starting with $5 for a glass-and-a-half of whatever grape somebody stomped that morning. (We enjoyed a $7 glass-plus of Primitivo and, on a second visit, a bottle of Malbec, $19.)

Fluffy probably would lobby for the seafood entrees, hoping for a kitty bag. Instead, we pigged out on the porchetta. It’s insanely delicious and destructive in equal measure —definitely a don’t-ask, don’t-tell kind of dish, composed of an inch-thick round of pearly pork, so tender you won’t need your dentures. It comes rubbed with garlic and (watch out!) banded with an ultra-tasty, rich and melty cummerbund of fat. Not only fat, but the addictively crispy, fat-soaked skin, called cracklings. The dish is further embellished with a sweet-savory blend of mustard and stone fruit to offset a food-induced coma, plus a heap of mealy roast potatoes.

We’d started with the wood-grilled asparagus — not so innocent as it sounds, either, because it comes with a lightly-poached egg on top, to pierce and dress the veggies, along with a dusting of Pecorino cheese. Fantastic! A lighter option is the field green salad, spangled with dried cherries and bits (you’ll need a microscope) of pecans and Gorgonzola.  

Pastas are meant as full-bore food, not primi, and the Carbonara number proved textbook-perfect, dotted with pancetta and topped with yet-another egg to puncture. But the Stratocasta — that squid-ink and seafood rendition — tasted merely like mushy hotdish. And the gnocchi came buried most inappropriately under an avalanche of ragu. The short ribs, served with a generous side of saffron risotto, proved another addictive way to offset the ravages of winter.

By this time, the dessert list ($7) made our eyes glaze over. Valiantly we split the sage panna cotta (light on the sage, if you ask me), accompanied by a compote of Port-soaked pears. Nice, but not compelling. But we left purring.

Il Gatto
Calhoun Square
Lake & Hennepin