Greek tragedy with happy ending4/24/2013
The James Beard Awards, the Pulitzer’s of food, recently honored George Formaro of Orchestrate Management among the nation’s top 20 restaurateurs. Of all the many honors thrown at our city’s restaurants and chefs during in the last 10 years, that was the most impressive. Formaro graduated from bakery owner to restaurateur just a decade ago. That was the same time that we began publishing Relish, Cityview’s fine dining magazine, so we watched closely as he developed Centro, Gateway Market Café, Django and Zombie Burger + Drink Lab while advising on operations at Mezzodi’s and Raccoon River Brewing Co. and hosting a weekly show on public radio. That’s a stunning body of work in a decade, and Formaro deserved to be included with the heavyweights of the restaurant world.
For every Formaro (and both the Full Court Press — a group of bar/restaurant owners with establishments throughout the metro — and the late Paul Trostel produced similarly impressive strings of success), there have been multiple incidences of a successful restaurant family over reaching. Insiders think Sage would still be around had the owner not expanded to Johnston. Taking on a second restaurant did not work out well for El Patio. Problems at Mezzodi’s nearly took Christopher’s down. Enosh Kelley (Bistro Montage) and Steve Logsdon (Lucca) both retreated quickly from forays with multiple restaurants.
Even the legendary Babe Bisignano did, too, twice. His explanation: “People expect to see me when they come in, and I can’t be in two places at the same time.” One restaurant guru compares such expansion temptations to gambling addiction. No one really believes they were lucky to win the first time, so they double down. Maybe, but restaurant owners also resemble heroes of Greek tragedy, done in by hubris.
Consider Gino’s. One degree of separation from the legendary Johnny and Kay’s, Gino Foggia’s odd-shaped joint was a Highland Park institution for half a century. Then the family was tempted by a prime corner in West Glen. A couple years later, both Gino’s West and Gino’s were closed and bill collectors were frustrated. The brand still had enough value, though, that long-time employees Jimmy Grove and Christy Reay bought, remodeled and reopened it recently.
As a sign on the wall has long declared, this place is “on the wrong side of: the fence, the tracks, the river, the hill town. The food must be good.” A 45-minute wait, at 5:20 p.m. recently, suggested that customers support that logic. My experiences did not seem to deviate from tradition. Bartenders still chilled shakers with ice before mixing martinis. Cavatelli, ravioli and fettuccine were all made from scratch. Marinara was still a simple tomato reduction, brighter red and less spicy than most others in town. Steaks were still hung to age and grilled. Portions were still generous — chicken Parmesano came with an entire separate dish of pasta and sauce.
Five things stood out. Chicken was marinated in buttermilk, breaded in Italian flour and pan fried until perfectly crisp and moist to the bone. (Two cooks pan fry chicken exclusively.) Prime rib was perfectly cooked to order in its own separate oven. No one does either of these popular dishes better. Creamy Parmesan salad dressing, with fresh-grated cheese and anchovy paste, was a unique taste that complements iceberg lettuce. Gino’s red pepper anchovy sauce sparkled while preserving an endangered recipe of old Des Moines. Homemade cakes were as moist and rich as any restaurant’s in town, plus they incorporated fresh fruits.
The new owners seem to have brought the old staff back together. Every server on my visits looked familiar and worked her room like an old pro. Reasonable substitutions were cheerfully granted, even on children’s menus. CV
Side Dishes This year’s Jewish Food Fair is set for May 19 at Temple B’nai Jeshurun… Hal Jasa is the new pastry chef at Crème Cupcakes.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.