Benvenuto, Il Foro

Photo by Ellen Schmidt Credit: Inside Il Foro in City Center.

Il Foro
40 S. 7th St.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. It re-opened.

I’m ecstatic to report that the exquisite downtown dining room — Minnesota Moderne, zig-zagging in silver, ice blue and glass — is as gorgeous as ever. That ’30s décor of the original Forum Cafeteria, which shut/re-opened/shut/re-opened/shut/etc. in a succession of succeeding ventures, is the pride of the new guys on the block — the same crew that’s reviving The Lexington in St. Paul.

This time around it’s stripped of white tablecloths (but not of white-tablecloth prices) and called Il Foro, celebrating an Italian focus.  The chef behind the range comes, indeed, from the Iron Range, and has incorporated some of his nonno and nonna’s recipes in his bag of tricks.

Maybe the minestrone, star of the list of antipasti ($10­–$14), but probably not the trendy langoustine sausage with artichoke and prosecco.  Maybe the meatball, but not the sharing-size beet and faro salad. Along with the chewy grain an d garnet hunks of beet come spears of sharp-flavored endive, creamy gorgonzola with a hint of salt to wake the plate, and —eccola! — rhubarb. Nice addition, especially with the ultra-buttery, garlic-laced ciabatta that hits the table.

Pastas, all made in-house, come in two sizes (small $7–$16). The two we tried were tasty, but won’t set the world on fire. Gnocchi, in nonna’s tomato-kissed “Sunday sauce” abetted by ricotta, proved of nicely bouncy body. The better choice — gemelli — delivered husky, snaky, ink-black noodles (thanks, octopus) studded with bits of chorizo and green fingers of shishito chili (but non-fiery) peppers. The remaining choices are aligned on the safe side of creativity (and that’s okay. Just sayin’.)

Four secondi (plus steaks) follow ($25–$28). Of course — c’mon! — we had to try Nonno Dario’s rabbit cacciatore: fork-tender dark meat in an olive-and-tomato sauce lightly kissed with a lemon-garlic-parsley gremolata, all atop a smooth, refined (and scanty) cushion of polenta. Sunday family lunch.

The dish not to miss, however, is the suckling-pig porchetta — a thick slice of succulent baby pig rimmed ever so wonderfully, wickedly in a crispy-to-creamy collar of fat. It’s served (to cut the fat? It works) with the robust sidekicks of braised escarole and charred fennel.

Or choose rainbow trout or chicken with cockscomb risotto.

Weighted with doggie bags, we failed to manage dessert. But if you can, the four choices are Italian standbys: panna cotta, tiramisu, chocolate/olive oil cake, and the one I’d vote for, a caramel affogato iced with vanilla gelato. The brief list of cocktails ($9–$13) is well-conceived, especially the Saxe Old Fashioned, built upon Bulleit rye. Interesting, off-the-chart wines BTG as well.

So, buona fortuna, Il Foro: Nice to see you once alive and well again.