Photo by Caitlin Abrams
The bar at Il Foro in downtown Minneapolis
It’s important to say straight away that the old Forum Cafeteria on 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis, now reborn as Il Foro, is one of the greatest art deco spaces in America—a glittering pistachio-and-mirror Viking fantasy that’s no less important in its way than the Chrysler Building. Where else in this country can you experience the zooming glamour, the spooky geometries, the glitter, glitter, glitter of the Jazz Age? Almost nowhere, really. So it’s nothing short of spectacular to be able to sit at the new oval bar near the street entrance and sip a negroni and let your eyes wander over detail after astonishing detail: painted pinecones jitterbugging in airy processions, aluminum ribbons zigzagging like lightning bolts across a ceiling the color of grasshopper pie. I could go on.
The bar is also the perfect place to consider Minnesota’s greatest Jazz Age writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his most misunderstood quote. In the notes to his unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald famously observed that, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Most people seem to take this to mean there are no second chances—when obviously second chances are what American lives are made of, which is why Hillary Clinton is running for president, Justin Timberlake and Robert Downey Jr. are superstars, and Lindsay Lohan is busily working on her “memoir trilogy.”
What Fitzgerald really meant was that there are no second acts in American life as there must be in a screenplay, where the second act is the most difficult part to write, the place where character grows and is defined by complication. David Mamet succinctly summed up the challenges inherent to writing a second act when he said, “Remembering you set out to drain the swamp is hard when you’re up to your ass in alligators.” Americans are very good at announcing we’ll drain the swamp, and then if it isn’t done swiftly we prefer to announce a new plan, or find a new person to announce they will drain the swamp. After all, second acts are boring and first acts are fun.
Nowhere in Minneapolis has had more first acts than the Forum Cafeteria. It was born in 1914 as a lavish picture palace called the Saxe (that’s where the astonishing ceiling height comes from), then remodeled in 1929 into the art deco pleasure palace it is now. Back then it was a cafeteria that served 1,000 people an hour. It lasted as the Forum until 1975, when it got a new first act, becoming a disco, Scottie’s on Seventh. Then the entire place was disassembled into 3,500 pieces and the original Saxe exterior was demolished to make way for City Center. The Forum was put back together 100 feet closer to Hennepin from where it was born, and proceeded to undergo a few more costume changes: first as the Paramount Café, then Mick’s, then a long run as haute fine-dining leader Goodfellow’s through 2005, then an awful thing called Forum Restaurant, and now, again, reborn!
Il Foro is brought to you by a group of partners all well versed in exciting, new, first-act-style projects as well as second-act complications. There’s culinary director Jack Riebel (one-time cook at Goodfellow’s, founder of Butcher & The Boar), chef Joe Rolle (formerly of Borough and Parlour), manager Lorin Zinter (formerly of Heyday), and owner Josh Thoma (founder of La Belle Vie, Solera, and Smack Shack). It’s as high powered a team as Minnesota dining has ever had. They could have done anything they wanted, but in the end chose Italian, which was a market gap in Minneapolis a year ago but is now in sudden oversupply with four large, high-end Italian spots opening in a six-month stretch (downtown’s Monello and Il Foro, and Uptown’s Parella and forthcoming Scena).
The modifications this all-star team did to the dining room are just right: They laid down some vintage-looking tile that echoes the original (lost in the move), added a bar near the 7th Street door to capture street traffic (it’s an awfully nice place to drink), and added banquettes and booth seating, all of which look like they could have been there for 100 years.
You can get lunch or dinner from those booths, but lunch is the strong suit. The burger Rolle has called his 2.0—his newest bid after inventing the city’s current reigning king of all burgers at Borough and Parlour—is nothing but terrific. Meaty in a chewy and substantial way (from the house-made blend of short ribs, brisket, and chuck), the meat is formed into two smallish patties that are grilled to a hard char and coated with the gooiest possible melty cheese. It’s the best downtown Minneapolis lunch burger right now.
The Dago, that inflammatorily named sausage sandwich that is the Twin Cities’ native pride, is the best version I think I’ve ever had, and I’ve had them all. The sausage patty it’s based on is thin, chewy, and a bit crusty, but still fork tender. But it’s the sautéed yellow and red bell peppers, the light, un-stringy mozzarella, and the soft fresh egg bun that lift the sandwich off the plate. The whole thing squishes down into a sort of strata that tastes like a handful of Italian street festival. Glorious.
The lunch sandwiches come with fried disks of potato, a spectacular update on the hallowed Minnesota jojo potato: skin-on circles crisp as potato chips at the edges and roasty-as-a-fireplace baked potato in the middle. The lunch Caesar is beautiful: whole stalks of Romaine dressed lightly and then snowed in with a blizzard of pecorino sardo as light as air and topped with a tremulous, bright-orange yolked soft egg (the kind that only the very best kitchens ever put out). The beef carpaccio is gorgeous, the meat still beefy-tasting even though it is as thin as tissue. It’s served with fresh potato chips and arugula, a smart way to expand the textures and extend the flavors of the dish.
Dinner at Il Foro is harder to recommend. The crudo options tend to feature mild fish overwhelmed by whatever is with them. Under prosciutto and foie gras, the lemon fish might have been anything, including Jell-O. Ditto for the yellow tail with the Indian spice blend vadouvan and fresh passion fruit. The pastas tend toward hearty portions of middling flavors: The spaghetti alla chitarra with clams, fennel sausage, and breadcrumbs tasted like one big tangle of mild starch. The same can be said for the red wine rigatoni, which I tried again and again and never came to like any better. On one visit the tortellini with a Bolognese filling was a riveting combination of ethereal and earthy, on other visits stale and leaden.
The larger dinner entrées were fine but never extraordinary. The rabbit cacciatore featured mild rabbit in an acidic, overly bright tomato sauce, and the suckling pig porchetta had a glorious crackling skin but was so salty that it overpowered the sausage stuffing and pork. Even though the fillets of rainbow trout were perfectly cooked, the acidic blend of baby artichokes, kale, peas, and lemon that accompanied them blurred into a chewy mass.
I never understood the desserts: a dreadful tiramisu tart with stiff globs of piped mascarpone, a chocolate olive oil cake that tasted utterly generic, and then a panna cotta with real feeling built around a creamy center as light as fluttering wings and adorned with jewels of balsamic-wilted ripe strawberries and starlight-pale twinkles of rhubarb granita. Rarely at dinner did the food achieve the expressiveness that the burger and panna cotta did. The wine list, too, is a perplexing mix of real passion—a smart Gaja feature section and a laundry list of popular options I can only assume were seen as necessities.
Why does Il Foro have such a hard time getting to great? Is it because it’s up to its ass in alligators? It’d be a smash hit running the more populist lunch menu all day, but that’s not the path to big fame and fortune. Is it because deep down Il Foro wants to be a cafeteria, serving the American food Rolle is clearly gifted at? The crew at Il Foro seems mired in second-act problems, with all sorts of characters trying to discover whether their stated ambitions and actual achievement can match up. That they’re doing it in one of the best-looking sets in America makes it a great show to attend, even if it’s not clear that it’s heading to a standing ovation.
40 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-238-2300, il-foro.com