Figlio is reborn on West End

RICK NELSON | , vita.mn | Updated 1/30/2013

Figlio finds a new, popular groove in St. Louis Park’s West End.

If I didn’t already know that Figlio (all together now: fee-lee-oh) is Italian for “son,” I would probably buy the argument that its English equivalent is “money machine.”

Jam-packed appears to be the reservation system’s default position at the St. Louis Park reincarnation of the restaurant that ruled the corner of Lake and Hennepin in Uptown Minneapolis for a quarter-century. “This place is like an ATM with a kitchen,” said my friend, as we were politely informed of a 30-minute wait for a table. At 5:30 p.m. On a Tuesday. Jackpot.

Those expecting to bend time and space to find themselves dining in Reagan-era (or Clinton-era, for that matter) Calhoun Square might find Figlio 2.0 disappointing. It’s less of a carbon copy and more of a vague, marketing-driven impersonation.

There are a dozen or so revivals of Dishes of Figlio Past, but only the overstuffed tortellini really stands out. Chef J.P. Samuelson, one of the few practitioners of his generation to have never punched the Figlio time clock, has crafted a modern interpretation of that classic, and it’s a must-order.

Fun fact: The original, forward-thinking Figlio sported the Twin Cities’ first wood-burning oven. Which is why it’s a relief to discover that Samuelson’s crew is churning out pizzas of distinction, topping chewy, bubbled crusts with an inspired array of premium ingredients.

Still, my first impression of the restaurant wasn’t particularly favorable. But flash forward a few weeks to several return visits, and redemption was in the air. Starting with the pastas, which were now something of a revelation.

An agreeably sloppy toss of pappardelle and mouth-melting chunks of slow-braised lamb was tailor-made to ward off the chill of a frigid January night. A wide bowl of ziti, dressed with a not-afraid-of-heat tomato-Italian sausage sauce, was similarly comforting. Ditto the uncomplicated ravioli, stuffed with three white cheeses and splashed with an herb-packed tomato sauce. Earth-shattering, no. But totally satisfying.

As with so many covers-all-the-bases menus, the kitchen’s least complicated work is its most reliable. A chicken breast, flattened on the grill and exuding a Minnesota-friendly level of garlicky bite, is served over a bed of buttered spaghettini and garnished with crispy fried parsley. A juicy, gently charred, pink-to-ruby steak cuts like a dream and shares the plate with a mountain of the skinny, crispy French fries.

Burgers hit all the right grace notes. Side dishes are a pleasingly idiosyncratic lot, and salads are thoughtfully composed.

The restaurant might be better off ignoring specific parts of its past and forging ahead. For example, skip “Joe’s Eggs,” a not-remarkable blast-from-the-past hash, in favor of “JP’s Eggs,” Samuelson’s much more palatable poached egg-salt cod-béarnaise sandwich.

The space doesn’t manage to muster up much personality. Turns out some qualities aren’t easily replicated, including sexual tension. While the bar at the original Figlio was synonymous with hookup — there should have been a cocktail named “Remove Your Wedding Ring” — it’s tough to imagine anyone getting anything going in St. Louis Park. Chalk that up to the difference between Uptown and the West End’s prefabricated aura.

Still, come doggy bag time (an inevitability in this House of Large Portions), the Figlio of old comes rushing back. Yes, it’s the triumphant return of the restaurant’s aluminum foil swans, the showy leftover vessel that remains equal parts tacky, endearingly retro and hilarious.

Foilgami, as a friend of mine calls it. Nice touch.

Figlio

⋆⋆ out of four stars

Where: 5331 W. 16th St., St. Louis Park; 952-345-2400 or www.figlio.com.

Recommended: Pizzas, porchetta, short ribs, pappardelle with lamb sugo, steak frites, burger, chocolate cake.