By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Standing at the corner of 9th Street and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, only a minor change to the awnings hint the major change inside. Zelo looks new.

“Towards the end, our service and food didn’t match the décor,” said original Zelo owner Rick Webb.

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Webb opened Zelo in 1999, and sold it in 2008 to focus on his restaurant Ciao Bella. He owned The Lexington in St. Paul throughout most of the 1990s, too.

However, despite leaving Zelo in 2008, part of him never really left.

“When I got the opportunity to own it again, I jumped at that,” he said.

Still, after 18 years of busy downtown lunches and dinners, the decor had gotten really dated. He hired architect Christian Garnett from New York, who came up with a rich design using lots of leather and walnut.

Venitian plaster walls lighten the space, new modern lighting from Minneapolis-based Hennepin Made punctuate the design. The entire remodel was done in just 15 days; workers ran three shifts to get the project done.

“I didn’t want people to think Zelo was closed for good,” Webb said.

When he finished on Feb. 1, Rick reopened with his original general manager and his original executive chef, Jason Gibbons.

“It’s more like a homecoming,” Gibbons said.

The food features a lot of classic dishes, but also a new focus on healthy food. Zelo is an Italian restaurant, but it also serves walleye.

“We embrace Italian as a style of cooking, not a cuisine,” said Gibbons, referring to fresh ingredients, and in-season produce.

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They do have pasta though. The same ravioli from 18 years ago – and it holds up.

“We have a person who all he does all day is make pasta,” Gibbons said.

The calamari is a Zelo original, too. And now you’ll find more salads — like a heirloom grain with farro and quinoa.

“The key is balance of flavors, it’s a key of Italian cooking,” Gibbons said.

Zelo is also known for seafood. It’s all certified-sustainable, according to Gibbons, and flown in daily. There are rotating features, like a grilled sea bass served with Tuscan fennel pollen.

Webb said he hopes this is a big year for Nicollet Mall, which should finish a two-year construction project in the summer. And the Super Bowl will be in Minneapolis in early 2018, bringing tens of thousands of customers to downtown Minneapolis.

Zelo has always operated like two different restaurants: a busy lunch for downtown workers, and a special occasion restaurant for hotel guests and people coming to Minneapolis for the Orchestra or the Hennepin Avenue theatres.

“People will decide if they like it, but hopefully they’ll give us another look,” said Webb.

Either way, he’s happy to be back home.

“This is what I love doing. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years,” he said.

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Restaurant info:
Zelo
831 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
612-333-7000.

Jason DeRusha