What are the makings of a good neighborhood restaurant? Our server originally had dropped the term while discussing the chef’s passion for local, vine-fresh produce. So, as I relaxed on al Vento’s hidden gem of a porch, I pondered a few criteria: It should be affordable, yet suitable for different occasions; it should offer a mix of favorite dishes and new inspirations; and, above all, it should provide a little bit of an escape.
al Vento rises to the challenge. The first thing one notices is the impermanence of the menu, which is printed daily. Therefore, some dishes I enjoyed may be unavailable, but because the quality of each course proved to be consistent throughout the evening, I have faith that the menu easily could prove so over the course of a month or even a year.
Bruschetta seems to be somewhat of a staple, and so, I will begin there. We were served the Sample of Four ($5.75): caponata; sweet corn and roasted peppers; basil pesto and roma tomato; and olive tapenade with goat cheese. The chef’s fondness for garden-fresh produce speaks volumes in fragrance. A tomato has a particular scent when it is ripening on the vine—a bright, peppery smell that triggers my sense memory of a perfect summer. This was the perfume that greeted me as soon as the handsome quartet was served. I have to admit favoritism with olive and goat cheese, but each sample holds its own.
With our starters, we enjoyed the sparkling Il Faggeto Prosecco ($8/36), which is surprisingly refreshing and delicate. To sip this treasure for a song, drop by 4:30-6 PM daily, or all day Sunday and Monday, when wine bottles are half-price.
A full page of martinis and other specialty drinks also is worth perusing. Having tried the Italian Mojito ($10) and the aptly named Hendrick’s Cucumber Cooler ($10), we were impressed with both. It’s difficult to rework the mojito—but this faux-jito resembles an Italian lemonade, and it works.
Next were the Sicilian Stuffed Mushrooms ($7.25), and this is where things got a little entertaining for my readers who enjoy schadenfreude. I never have been a fan of the stuffed mushroom. As a food writer, I feel I must explain. I was raised by mushroom people who like to overcook their produce. I had to endure one particularly retched weekend when my parents decided to “perfect” the crab-stuffed mushroom. Tray after tray was birthed for two horrifying days, as they adjusted first one thing, then another (never apparently the cooking time), until that smell permeated the paint.
Here I was at al Vento, facing down the brown monster, all in the line of duty. While I probably will remain affected by what I now refer to as The Incident, I honestly can say that if my childhood experience with mushrooms had been at al Vento, things probably would be different. The al Vento mushrooms were actually good. Just don’t tell my mother!
Now, my readers, let’s venture back to the adult table. Our Insalate course was Caprese with heirloom tomatoes, housemade mozzarella, and fresh basil ($8.75). Again, the authentic scent of tomato hit my nose instantly. Truly, it’s not even worth comparing these beauties to grocery store varieties—a longer shelf life is an ill-gotten gain.
Our pasta course was Pappardelle with pork bolognese and Gorgonzola ($14.25). Gorgonzola more often is combined with a white sauce than a red, but it actually perked up the old Southern Italian standby. The house red, Farnese Montepulciano D’Abruzzo ($6/24), which is quite sassy, paired swimmingly with the pasta. As a good house wine, it was also serviceable with our first entrée, Pork Tenderloin ($18.75), although the sweet reduction sauce was better with our server’s recommendation, the dark and smoky Cerasuolo di Vittoria Frappato (off-menu).
We heartily enjoyed the fresh Halibut ($22.75) with a glass of Pasqua Lapaccio Fiano Salento ($7/30). Our server assured us that more perfect pairings could be found by the bottle, but when he emerged with the Grahams 20-year port ($12), we were grateful that cooler heads prevailed.
The rich port makes a fantastic dessert in itself, but if one is in the mood for something sweeter still, Olive Oil Cake ($7) is a knockout, fluffed with lemon zest, fresh berry puree, and hazelnuts. One still can taste a hint of olive oil—it is divine. The velvety Gelato ($3) is a bit of a “happy accident”—the result of a stray gelato machine left behind at Head Chef Jon Hunt’s other establishment, Rinata.
Approachable, affordable, flexible, interesting, and inviting, al Vento is clearly a favorite neighborhood restaurant. If it’s not in your neighborhood, I don’t think the locals will mind too much if you borrow theirs for the night.
5001 34th Ave. S., Mpls.