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The Minnesota Daily

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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Disenchanting Italian service

Zelo, an Italian restaurant on Nicollet Mall, specializes in recipes from northern Italy and authentic, unhurried service.

.”A girl went back to Napoli because she missed the scenery, the native dances and the charming songs. But wait a minute, something’s wrong.” So goes the beginning of Dean Martin’s “Mambo Italiano” and a typical visit to Zelo, an Italian restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.


WHERE: 831 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
PRICE: $15-35

Though the interior of Zelo suggests that your meal will be as spectacularly constructed as the restaurant’s layout and décor, this isn’t exactly correct; it’s Italian that you could get from that most famous of chain restaurants, the Olive Garden. (And the bread’s better at Olive Garden, honestly.)

With its intricate silver molding, accented by deep maroon walls and curved espresso wood booths, it’s no surprise that Zelo nabbed Mpls St. Paul Magazine’s award for Best Ambiance in 2003. However, since the weather was looking particularly gorgeous, and it just happened to be rush hour, we chose to dine on the restaurant’s roped-off patio, donned with black, wire chairs and silver tablecloths.

There are some pluses to dining in the heart of downtown. If you’re lucky enough to score an outside table, the business-folk and denizens of Nicollet Mall will keep you entertained while you wait for your meal. (In our case, the wait was over 45 minutes, which is never acceptable, least of all from a restaurant that wishes to be considered respectable and upscale.) Provided the pigeons stay out of your dishes and the disgruntled man on the corner keeps away from your table, eating outside at Zelo is preferable for a lunch break or an early dinner date. The interior of Zelo is absolutely lovely, which makes it the perfect dimly-lit destination to flirt over your appetizers and play footsie underneath the mahogany-tinted tables.

Our smug waitress was tight-lipped and reluctant to offer help throughout the dining experience. In her Giorgio Armani sunglasses (an “authentic” Italian overkill), it often seemed that assisting us in our dining selection was tiresome. Her bored tones were less than welcoming, and only once did she ensure that everything had arrived properly – when our meals were almost completely consumed. The man who refilled our water glasses was by far the most polite and courteous staff member.

The dinner, though not fully worth the time we spent tapping our toes and watching a sidewalk clown make balloon animals, was not altogether a disappointment. Zelo hails northern Italian recipes, featuring roast chicken, risotto and more oily pasta. The tortiglioni rossa, with creamy pureed tomato sauce, sweet peas, roasted red peppers and spicy sausage was delicious. However, the four cheese flatbread left something to be desired. With inconvenient pouches of goat cheese, the food was as inconsistent as the staff.

The wood grilled natural chicken and organic apple is the highlight of the menu. The moist chicken is savory, served with sweet corn and smoked almonds in maple-sherry vinaigrette. The dish is a perfectly cohesive blend of luscious flavor and enticing aroma.

To say the least, their desserts are worth a taste or two. Choose from budino, a layered masterpiece of fudge cake, oozing chocolate sauce and Tahitian vanilla gelato, or milk chocolate cremeux, a scrumptious jumble of peanut brittle and caramelized bananas. Plus, what is a visit to an Italian spot if you don’t sample their tiramisu?

If a quick bite to eat is what you’re searching for whilst meandering downtown, keep looking; you’ll probably get better service at Macy’s basement cafeteria than from the staff at Zelo. But if a cozy little rendezvous is in your plans, this Italian eatery could just be the destination of your dreams, if you don’t mind the wait.

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