A decade ago, Italian farmhouse cooking captured the American food porn imagination like, well, porn.
Golden-hued images of impeccably renovated Tuscan farmhouses were the Food & Wine set's wet dream. The vineyards tumbling beyond the kitchen windows. The granite center islands with centerpieces brimming with just-picked lemons. The wine.
No matter that you had to be a bajillionaire to occupy one of these. Or that renovations could take a decade. Or that original Italian farmhouses typically have no electricity or plumbing. We wanted that villa, dammit!
If you don't have a cool mil or a dozen years, cruise over to the quiet, mostly residential neighborhood near Cedar Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway for a miniature yet ultra-satisfying plunge into that food-porn fantasy. You don't get to live there, but you can dine to jeans-unbuttoning levels, which is almost the same thing.
The cooking is familiar and comforting without swaying way over into red sauce territory the way that similarly comforting, but more cheeky and more southern Italian Mucci's in St. Paul does.
This brand of comfort is more subtle, the way the Italian grandmother of your imagination cooks — if your Italian grandma is on TV and wields a microplane.
It's no accident. Eric Carrara, who owns I.E. (short for Italian Eatery) with his wife, Vanessa, grew up in the "Cossetta's of my hometown," an Erie, Pennsylvania institution called Serafini's.
"My grandfather literally bought it so we could have Sunday family dinner," says Carrara. "And since 1921, it's been the weekly Italian dinner table of his (and our) dreams. Thirty uncles and cousins and grandpas at the long wooden table, complete with a lot of arguing."
So it's not too much to say this has always been Carrara's destiny. But not before putting in a ton of research at D'Amico & Partners, Zelo, and Broders'. He and Vanessa (who he proposed to in Cinque Terre, naturally) researched spaces for five years before finally landing in a former Carbone's Pizzeria on Cedar Avenue. (Carrara tells us they have also purchased the building next door, though he was mum about future plans.) At long last they present to you their lifelong dream.
Welcome to the Serafini's of the next generation.
Carrara has relatives from Tuscany, but also from Sicily, so there's no specific regional alliance coming out of the kitchen. But a holy trinity of Italian cooking does: ultra-seasonal, ultra-local, and ultra-quality at all times.
You can taste it.
The menu is broken down such that if you ever get to the entrees section, we salute you: starters, salad and soup, sides (all of which are shareable or can be eaten like their own little main course), and nearly a dozen fresh pastas that rival any fresh pastas in town. If you've got any room after that, turn to main courses, which lean heavily on roasted and braised meat.
Start with foundational things like a trio of Roman meatballs, springy, light, and filled with all the umami of pork, veal, and beef, drenched in a blanket of red sauce that's as rich and serious as velvet. Or a perfect little pot of mussels, bathing in house-made Limoncello and butter, punched up with grilled lemon leaves.
Even a seemingly sleeper choice of tomato soup proves provocative, lipstick red, and garden fresh, tarted up with fresh Parmesan and mascarpone.
From here, meander over to the pasta section, where shapes and colors festoon plates like party confetti. Squid-ink spaghetti with clams, uni butter, and bottarga (salted, cured fish roe) is black as a night sky and squiggly like something out of a surrealist painting.
Gemelli with sorrel pesto and ricotta is its opposite, grasshopper green tubes of springtime crowned with a billow of goat milk ricotta. Baked garganelli brings muscle to the menu: It's big, heavy, cheesy, meatbally, and bold.
Order the 600-day dried prosciutto and imported burrata cheese, with long planks of grilled bread, the whole drama arriving on the cross section of a tree trunk. Place it next to a bottle of wine (the list is exclusively Italian and the sommeliers are attentive and approachable), and you're staring at a breathtaking cover of Architectural Digest.
Pan-fried artichoke ravioli consists of dreamy puffs of pasta, infused with airy ricotta and lemon. Dry-rubbed beef short ribs are braised in porcini mushrooms and pine nut agrodolce (Italian sweet and sour sauce) until quivering. An impossibly hulking portion fit for sharing with the table is just $22.
Chef Stephanie Miller, formerly of Piccolo and Heartland, is an absolute powerhouse, changing this 30-item menu (plus separate bar and brunch menus) as often as every two weeks. Many of the dishes listed here may not even be available when you visit. But fear not. Other mighty ones will take their place.
It's not a perfect restaurant. We had some real clunkers, including a ceviche that didn't spend enough time in its citrus broth, rendering it all but raw when it hit the table. A housemade sausage was a study in "just because you can do something doesn't mean you should." A braised porchetta bruschetta was dry and boring and felt like a throwaway for such an otherwise accomplished kitchen.
But it was a challenge to find things not to like.
The neighborhood seems to feel similarly. The place is almost always clamoring with crowds, and our only knock against that casual, farmhouse-style space is that it can get noisy. Really noisy, like that extended Italian family table.
But nobody seems to mind. While the food is great (really great), the place is designed to be a gathering space, as it would be in Italy.
"In Italy, when you walk into a restaurant, they're not talking about food offerings," says Carrara. "It's about quality, enjoying what's around you, and relaxing and being together with family. And then, when you bite into the food, you say, 'Wow.'"
But why such an unassuming name? He says he waited six years to claim the domain.
"It had to be as simple as possible. It goes back to our values. I.E. is not about us. It's about the people at the table."
Your very own Italian table. Wow.
4724 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis