It's a little domestic drama that plays itself out everytime Carol and I don't feel like cooking: I want to go someplace cheap, and Carol wants to go someplace nice. And then we try to agree on someplace that offers a bit of both. Often we wind up at Peninsula on Eat Street, or El Meson on Lyndale, or other nearby spots like Victor's 1959 Cafe or the Grand Cafe. But last week we ventured a little further afield, and had a delightful dinner at Al Vento, at 53th St. and 34th Ave. S. in the Nokomis neighborhood.
The white linens are covered with paper, but the pale gold walls and candlelight still give the dining rooms a romantic aura. The mostly Southern Italian menu offers a few pizzas ($9-$12), a few pastas ($12-$15), plus a fresh sheet of specials that includes a pizza and pasta of the day, and a handful of entrees that ranges from Parmesan chicken breast with root vegetables ($16) to veal scallopine picatea style with porcini risotto ($20).
Those prices are pretty reasonable, but Al Vento offers a special deal Sunday to Thursday after 8 p.m.: Two pastas, two glasses of wine and dessert for $35. And on Sunday and Monday nights, bottles of wine are half price.
Al Vento must be the last restaurant in the Twin Cities where you can get a decent glass of wine - or any glass of wine, for that matter - for four bucks. Elsewhere, even the $5 glass is disappearing, and the $6 glass of wine is on the endangered list. Al Vento's featured house red, a Solopaca Rosso, from the Campania region near Naples, doesn't have a lot of complexity, but it's very drinkable - a robust red that can stand up to the flavors of a hearty red sauce. I haven't tried the Solopaca Bianco, but for $4, I would take a chance. Another white offered at the same price happens to be a favorite of mine: the Gazela Vino Verde from Portugal, a slightly effervescent, low alcohol wine that's perfect for warm weather. (Hennepin Lake Liquors has had it on sale for $4.99 a bottle; we buy it by the case.)
We started with the bruschetta sampler, crisp slices of toasted Italian bread with toppings of tomato basil, artichoke walnut, olive tapenade, and an eggplant caponata, all lively and flavorful, followed by a beet salad with hazelnut vinaigrette that was big enough to share. Carol choose an antipasto from the fresh sheet as her main course: plump black mussels steamed in white wine, while I chose a pasta special of homemade pappardelle with a robust sauce of tomatoes and wild boar sausage - a specialty of Tuscany. The flavors were lively and robust, the portion generous. On a return visit, the gnocchi with English peas, asparagus and fiddlehead ferns were the perfect spring dish, lightly cooked to preserve the freshness of the ingredients. We've only sampled one of the desserts so far: a trio of miniature creme brules, in vanilla, mocha chocolate and pistachio, a perfect finish to a simple but satisfying supper.
Al Vento, 5001 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis,. www.alventorestaurant.com