Spending $1 million-plus to renovate and reflag a long-running restaurant is a big step for any restaurateur. And it really takes guts to spring for a second makeover a mere nine months into the new regime. But that's how Parasole Restaurant Holdings c.e.o. Phil Roberts played it at his multi-concept company's sparkling new Il Gatto (translation: the cat) in Minneapolis.
Dubbed an “Uptown Italian” operation, Il Gatto replaced the company's venerable Figlio, which had anchored the high-visibility corner of Lake and Hennepin for the past 25 years. No way Parasole was going to give up a spot in a neighborhood that hums with vibrant retail and nightlife and where the newest tenant is an Apple store. But it was a situation where, after a while, ownership looked at Figlio and got to thinking, “we're doing all right…but we think we could do better.” Thus Roberts and company rolled out plan to give the place a new name, rework its interior and adopt a contemporary Italian menu.
At first, the new Il Gatto seemed perfect. “This place feels so right, so timeless,” Roberts gushed at its November, 2009 opening. “It's like Figlio existed somewhere else. Il Gatto's exactly the right restaurant to anchor Uptown for the next 25 years.” But customer feedback was less enthusiastic, and the place never took off like Roberts and Parasole had hoped. A disappointment? Sure. But Il Gatto's brief operating history gave Roberts a good idea about where he wanted to take it next.
His thinking at this point: “Why not create a true dining destination that will wow foodies without alienating everyday diners, that will raise the culinary ante without raising prices?”
Hey, everybody wants to have that kind of restaurant. But Roberts knew who to ask for help to make Il Gatto actually become one — Tim McKee, the 2009 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef Midwest. He came on board to direct the kitchen this past September.
It was familiar surroundings for McKee, who worked the line at Figlio for a couple of years when he first started out. He moved on to open La Belle Vie, his formal French spot, and he's also involved with hip downtown tapas bar Solera. But McKee was still up for the Il Gatto gig.
“Ever since I left my position as executive chef at D'Amico Cucina in 1997, I've wanted to cook Italian,” McKee explains. “And this was an opportunity to walk into a beautiful restaurant with great management and staff, and simply do what I've been longing to do.” He brought along Jim Christiansen, his long-time number two, to help pull it off.
What kind of magic could McKee, who still operates his other two restaurants, work on the Il Gatto menu?
“Right now, you'll find a menu very similar to its predecessor in structure and price point, but with a significant changeover in menu items along with a pronounced shift toward more adventurous flavor pairings that remain authentically Italian. The only liberty I've taken with tradition is the way we mix refinement with rusticity,” says McKee.
He tackled the antipasti and small plate section of the menu first. The first round of additions include Pancetta (house-cured, wood-roasted pancetta with mission figs and balsamic vinegar); Tartara di Bistecca (steak tartare with horseradish, capers and quail egg); and Indivia (endive, Caesar citronette, pine nuts and pecorino). New hand-tossed pizza options are Malanzane (grilled eggplant, smoked mozzarella, oyster mushrooms, fresh oregano; Buratta (Calabrian mozzarella, basil and rapini pesto, pine nuts); and Pizza Guanciale (cured pork, mission figs, goat cheese and Balsamico).
“You'll also find pastas like Bucatini all' Amatriciana prepared the way God intended,” McKee says. “Nice and spicy, redolent of tomatoes and pancetta. There's also hand-rolled, mint-infused Fazzoletti, or little handkerchiefs, with lamb ragu.” He'll move on to the entrée and dessert parts of the menu next.
Roberts is hoping these changes will help Il Gatto meet its revenue goal: bring in $1.5 million more each year than the roughly $5 million Figlio did.
Parasole had plenty of resources to draw on to fund Il Gatto's post-makeover makeover. The company operates Chino Latino and Uptown Cafeteria & Support Group in the Uptown neighborhood; Manny's Steakhouse and The Living Room & Prohibition at the W Minneapolis — The Foshay; Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse in Maple Grove; Salut Bar Americain in Edina and St. Paul; the Good Earth Restaurants in Edina and Roseville, and Burger Jones on the north side of Minneapolis's Lake Calhoun.
Roberts thinks that with McKee on board, Il Gatto can't miss. “Tim has the creativity, skill and discipline to do almost anything. By providing him a venue at Il Gatto and the resources of Parasole, we're freeing him to do what he loves best.” As partnerships go, this one's going to be hard to top.