For three generations the Valentini family, originally from Sarnano and Fabriano, Italy, has been cooking up homemade pasta and sauces. In 1936, they opened Valentini’s Supper Club in Chisholm. In 2008, they expanded to Valentini’s Vincio Lago—Valentini’s By the Lake—at 1400 London Road in Duluth.
The colorful lobby is enhanced by twinkling lights, a charming bar, and a case full of beautiful desserts and fine cheeses. The dining room is bright, with a spectacular view of Lake Superior.
Our seating experience was sort of unusual. When we walked in, the wait staff loudly asked, in a sharp tone, “Is it me or you?” I felt like we were intruding.
Our waiter, however, was superb. He answered our questions—and, poor thing, we asked a lot of them!—with honesty and knowledge. He was patient and smiled at everything we threw his way.
Valentini’s wine selection includes offerings from California, Australia, Argentina, and a large selection from Tuscany. We started with the Candoni Chianti, an intense Sangiovese blend, bursting with almond and blackberry.
For appetizers, we opted for seafood cakes and the Mega Meatball. They’re not kidding about the “mega.” This meatball is huge, stuffed with mozzarella and topped with Sugo, a house red sauce prepared with meat, but then strained for a meatless sauce with enriched flavor. The meatball could have stood on its own without the cheese, which may have actually detracted from a flavor that was subtle to begin with.
The seafood cakes are deep-fried and served with aioli sauce. The texture is amazing, but the only flavor we could find was in the sauce.
For lunch, we ordered cheese ravioli and Carbonara ala Valentini, which is not traditionally prepared. Authentic Italian carbonara relies on an egg yolk in the sauce. Americanized Italian uses cream and egg, which is what Valentini’s does. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the prosciutto adds the right amount of salt and zippiness. It was rich and tasty, but seemed more like fettucini alfredo.
The ravioli is homemade, which is a rare and wonderful treat. It’s chewy, but real hand-pressed pasta is thicker than the store-bought variety. We topped the ravioli with Pomodoroo, a light tomato, basil, and garlic sauce that did not disappoint, and a pesto with cream added, which takes away from the basil, garlic, and nuttiness.
We ordered Folonari Soave with espressos to accompany dessert. The Soave (Italian for smooth) is crisp, light and clean. The espresso tasted rather bitter, but was not as disappointing as dessert. We ordered tiramisu, because in an Italian restaurant, you pretty much have to, and a chocolate éclair. Tiramisu is ladyfingers soaked in espresso and layered with mascarpone cheese. This version had only one small ladyfinger crust, devoid of coffee, and topped with a flavorless mascarpone. The éclair was stale, cold, and also lacking in taste.
I greatly respect locally owned businesses and Valentini’s puts great effort into its food. Fresh hand-rolled pasta and homemade sauces are a great start, if they’d trust themselves to give customers a chance to sample authentic Italian flavor and style.
Annie Walchuk is a born and raised Duluthian whose thirst for adventure led her to writing. She is a cook and baker, who spent over 20 years as a restaurateur, including a stint at the Northern Grounds Café in Ely. She also oversaw operations for a catering company and bistro on the edge of the Boundary Waters.