Chef Rikki Giambruno returned to his native Twin Cities from Brooklyn, New York last fall with one aim: to bring the freshest, brightest cuisine of southern Italy to St. Paul with his soon-to-be Grand Avenue restaurant, Hyacinth.
“The food is going to have that feeling of being light, healthy, vegetable-heavy, and simple, but at the same time we’re in Minnesota,” he says. “We couldn’t be further from the Mediterranean.”
To circumvent this small obstacle, Giambruno plans to utilize the knowledge and skills he picked up while serving as the executive chef of the acclaimed New York restaurant Franny’s, up until the owners decided to sell last summer. The Brooklyn favorite served up fresh Italian and Mediterranean dishes, a style that spoke directly to Giambruno.
“The food just clicked with me. It was food that I’d never cooked before in a restaurant,” he says. He started at Franny’s as a line cook in 2014, without a clue at the time that he would eventually assume the role of executive chef two years later. “That was the first time that I felt like what was in my head was starting to match up with what I could create in the world.”
Franny’s was steadfast with their regular hand-selection of all the seasonal produce and goods they used.
“For most purveyors it’s as simple as clicking a button or making a call. But to actually go to a place and hand-select everything is tricky, [yet] I think the benefits way outweigh the difficulty of it. Not only is the product probably a lot better, but the mentality of how your staff handles everything, knowing that they know the person that grew it, they know that their chef or sous chef was up at six in the morning picking this up, there’s just generally more respect for the product if you know everything that goes into bringing it to the restaurant.”
Giambruno and his chef de cuisine Paul Baker (another Franny’s alumnus) hope to frequent the local markets and form close bonds with local farmers.
“The way that I cook, and the way, that I set up a menu, it’s 100 percent based on what there is,” Giambruno says.
Hyacinth, named after the street Giambruno grew up on, will open in the previous Golden Fig space on Grand Avenue and Avon Street, in a space that has never before housed a restaurant (though on a block that coincidentally will soon host another new Italian eatery). “We have to install everything into the place, so it’s gonna take some time to get it to where I want it to be,” he says. Pending city approval, buildout of the space should start in the next four weeks, with a loose opening date set for mid-summer.
The space will be small, no more than 40 seats, which was exactly the size he was hoping for with his neighborhood restaurant. “I want the hospitality to feel like you’re in somebody’s home, that you’re a guest, and we’re really excited that you’re here with us.”
As for the bar program, he’ll will be taking advantage of his family ties through his brother and co-owner of Bad Weather Brewing, Joe Giambruno, who will help build the rotating beer list (and maybe even a Hyacinth-specific recipe). According to Rikki, the beer and wine lists will be relatively small and highly curated to match the week’s menu.
As far as sourcing fresh produce in colder months, Giambruno has been prepared for this challenge since he first discovered his love for Italian cuisine at Franny’s. He would keep journals with hundreds of dish ideas utilizing ingredients of every season, all centered around the Italian ethos of the restaurant. This regular practice has armed him with the ability to cook on his feet, without relying on any one season’s worth of produce.
“If you know what’s available to you, you just play within that and it forces you to get creative with what’s there, as opposed to just having everything at your fingertips,” he says. “The menu will change frequently based on obviously what’s available, but also just how we’re feeling in the kitchen.”
With his experience in working as an executive chef of an acclaimed neighborhood restaurant, where he formed close bonds with his staff, those who frequented the restaurant, and his local farmers and purveyors, Giambruno has a unique grasp of the significance that lies in forming an ethos of elevation and positivity within every aspect of his restaurant.
“When the kitchen is excited about something, the front of house is excited, and when the front of house is excited about it, guests are excited about it. It just kind of creates this energy, and this feeling that this place is alive.”