It all started in 1980 in New York City.
My design practice took me out east every few weeks, and my clients took pity on me. Knowing that my heart was in food and restaurants, they made it their mission to introduce this kid from “fly-over country” to the newest and hottest restaurants the Big Apple had to offer… think MAXWELL’S PLUM…..TAVERN ON THE GREEN…..SIGN OF THE DOVE (Jackie Kennedy’s hangout)….THE PALM…..ORSINI’S…..(another Jackie hangout).
One evening, my client, Leo Sullivan, said, “We’re going to PRONTO tonight.” I thought, is this a Mexican Restaurant? Or does it have something to do with State Fair food on a stick….PRONTO PUPS?
So about 7 o’clock that evening our taxi pulled up at 30 East 60th street, and there was a line of 20 or 30 people out the door. And – wait a minute – was that Dustin Hoffmann standing there with them?
What can be so good that celebrities will queue up for it?
Well, we got in line like everybody else, and in about 30 minutes we entered the restaurant. And what did I see? I saw a small kitchen in the center of an all-white tile dining room where a lady in a white starched uniform was rolling dough, cutting it into ribbons and hanging it on racks…..ready to cook.
Stacked up in her little kitchen were “flats” of fresh eggs and stacked bags of flour. Since I had a few years of MUFFULETTA under my belt, I knew that eggs were only four cents apiece. I couldn’t remember what flour cost, but one thing I knew for sure: They were selling dishes made essentially of eggs and flour for $17.95. And Dustin Hoffmann was standing in line for them.
So the next day I went back to PRONTO and asked to see the owner. A Frenchman, Jacques Ramekers, emerged from the office and I said…… “I’m Phil Roberts. I’m from Minneapolis. And I’ve got to have one of these.”
He said, “Let’s talk.”
And talk we did. More than that, we struck a deal. (I’m still amazed that I had the balls to do it; look at the photo of me –not exactly the picture of NYC sophistication).
Around that time, my partner Pete and I realized that neither of us knew a damn thing about real Italian food and dining. So we did the only sensible thing we could think of: We enrolled in cooking school in Bologna, Italy – taught by none other than Marcella Hazan.
Several months later, PRONTO RISTORANTE opened in the new HYATT REGENCY HOTEL.
And we startled not just ourselves, but the entire Twin Cities dining out community.
For diners who only knew red sauce, lasagna, meatballs and checkered tablecloths with basket Chianti bottles on the table……PRONTO was a shocker – not just the sensory overload of a stark, bright-white dining room…..but an entire menu of offerings that were totally unfamiliar and possibly scary at that time.
Octopus in the land of Lutherans?
This thing called “arugula?”
We served carpaccio, not just of filet mignon…. but salmon, scallops, and even pineapple. We imported prosciutto (and not from the Hormel plant in Austin.)
And speaking of imports, we got our ass handed to us when we offered up an authentic Tuna Nicoise salad made with fancy jarred tuna from Italy. NO, NO, NO…..not in Minnesota. We gave in and put a slab of grilled tuna on top.
The list goes on: Fettuccine Carbonara with – what the hell is that? – a poached egg on top. Linguini with clams, Risotto Milanese, occasionally topped with a veal shank…Osso Buco, Veal Saltimbocca with prosciutto and sage (yum)…Cotoletta and its cousin Costoletta (veal on the bone). We served swordfish, and had the confidence to do it simply grilled (alongside a Sicilian version with green olives)….
In summer folks blanched when we featured VEAL TONNATO….cold slices of veal blanketed with TUNA SAUCE and CAPERS.
Not only did we produce a sensational coffee and chocolate classic TIRAMISU, but but come summer, we created a strawberry version.
The Twin Cities had never seen anything like this. It was weird, not like CHARLIE’S…..and definitely not like DI NAPOLI……
But fortunately enough folks loved it, and so did the artists and musicians who played Orchestra Hall across the street….Henry Mancini….Ella Fitzgerald…Harry Connick, Jr.
And on one particular night…. there sat Pinchas Zukerman, Sir Neville Marriner and Yo Yo Ma, all at the same table! Zukerman, in fact, returned regularly, often accompanied by his Hollywood starlet girlfriend, Tuesday Weld (google her, kids).
Pronto had a good run – about 20 years. It helped to influence the course of Twin Cities’ dining. It served as a training ground for many of our best-known culinary figures. It introduced me to the genius (and occasional insanity) of Italian chefs. It inspired me to do a 180 and open up Buca di Beppo, a restaurant that embraced everything Pronto eschewed. And in its later years, after the glitterati had moved on and before we opened Oceanaire Seafood Room in that space, Pronto’s glass-walled main dining room served as Joanne’s and my private dining room – the site of some of the best meals of my life.
Would Pronto work today? Well, eggs cost a lot more than they did then. Half the city’s afraid of gluten, and the other half run screaming from carbs. …But give people a taste of Pronto’s Carbonara, and they just might start lining up all over again.
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