After purchasing Baricelli Inn from chef Paul Minnillo in 2010, restaurateur Scott Kuhn knew he had a tough act to follow. Living up to the Little Italy landmark restaurant’s impeccable contemporary Italian cuisine seemed daunting.
“Honestly, I was afraid of following in his footsteps,” he says. So Kuhn reimagined the space as a modern American bistro called Washington Place Bistro & Inn, then took a trip to Tuscany for an education on all things Italian.
Kuhn found the region of central Italy was filled with culinary treasures, from creamy risottos to fresh seafood. “The ingredients were so simple, yet so flavorful,” Kuhn says. “I really think that’s what makes the food so good.”
Three years later that experience influenced Kuhn when he was presented with an opportunity to open a restaurant in downtown Cleveland’s Theater District.
As the proprietor of Driftwood Restaurant Group, Kuhn has a knack for operating properties in unique settings ranging from the Orchard House in a Brunswick apple orchard to Burton’s Welshfield Inn in an 1842 stagecoach stop.
“Our company is a niche filler,” Kuhn explains. “We don’t come up with concepts and then go looking for a location. We find a location, determine what the neighborhood needs and then build a concept from there.”
Nestled into an expansive, 172-seat space formerly occupied by Bricco, the 8-month-old Cibreo Italian Kitchen clearly caters to its theater-going clientele. That includes offering discounted valet parking ($20 on a recent Saturday night, with a $12 rebate for restaurant guests), a white-tablecloth vibe in keeping with the cultured crowd, and attentive, efficient service that aims to greet you, feed you and send you back out the door well in advance of your 8 p.m. curtain.
Yet even before guests see a menu, they get a taste of Cibreo’s Tuscan roots. (The name, incidentally, means ragu.) Dramatic and engaging, the physical space is inspired by Kuhn’s visit to Chianti winery Fattoria Rodano, where he dined with winemaker Enrico Pozzesi.
“He walked us up into his living room, where there was a gorgeous stone fireplace with chestnuts roasting, and a long wooden table,” he recalls. “We sat there and enjoyed such a fabulous meal — his warmth and kindness were just incredible.”
The restaurateur tried to recapture that vibe with high-vaulted ceilings, faux dark wood floors and walls lined with sandstone from an Oregon quarry, which Kuhn says is much like the Italian version. Those rustic elements serve as a backdrop to tables double-draped in luxurious white linens, augmented by an eclectic collection of long, farmhouse-style tables topped with weathered candelabras.
The overall effect is not unlike a rustic piazza set for an elegant party.
Service, too, mirrors the kindness Kuhn found in the Tuscan people. After two visits overlapping the weekend pre-theater dinner rush, we can vouch that, in terms of attentiveness, efficiency and menu knowledge, this is one of the best service teams in town. From the valet who held open the doors and the hostess who checked our coats to the servers who knew every detail of each dish’s origins and preparation style, we felt welcomed and well cared for.
As for the food, Kuhn has attempted to create a menu that captures the flavors of Tuscany, using fresh, local ingredients to the greatest extent possible. “It took seven months of talking, tasting and translating Scott’s flavor memories to come up with these dishes,” says executive chef Erik Martinez.
Just as tempting, the team has done so at a reasonable price point, pegging most entrees — including 13 pasta, risotto and gnocchi preparations — at or below the $25 mark.
As it happens, our favorite main course was also one of the least expensive: the Cibreo pasta ($19). Snappy pappardelle ribbons (imported dry from Italy) are tossed in a slow-simmered sauce of roasted wild boar shoulder, pork, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, Chianti and aromatic herbs, and veggies. Complexly flavored, breathtakingly rich, yet not a bit greasy, the dish is a flawless recapitulation of Tuscany’s culinary largess.
When not using imported products, Kuhn and Martinez favor Ohio City Pasta for its quality and freshness. In the case of Cibreo’s chestnut ravioli ($23.50), the pasta is custom-filled with Martinez’s house-made chestnut, honey and sage puree. Then the tender pasta pockets are bathed in a glistening mascarpone cream sauce and piqued with pecorino, radicchio, pancetta and a bit of fried sage, working that sweet-but-savory dichotomy for all it is worth.
Two seafood entrees — pan-seared bronzini ($25) and sauteed scallops ($29) — were less compelling. In the first, the mild white fish had been over-salted. In the second, the trio of glossy scallops were moist and perfectly seared; it was their bed of crisp, not creamy, risotto that gave us pause.
On a later visit, the mushroom risotto ($16) was all we could hope for: delicate, creamy and bursting with deep forest flavors.
For starters, the complimentary bread service could be all you need, with warm slabs of tender focaccia and slim, imported breadsticks; an accompanying trio of grassy Italian extra-virgin olive oil, house-made pesto and whipped butter offers endless dipping possibilities. Other worthy appetizers include the hearty porcini, bean and sausage soup ($6), enlivened with notes of fennel; and the Cibreo board ($22), a tasty if fairly commonplace collection of cured meats and imported Italian cheeses.
While Cibreo reflects Kuhn’s love for Tuscany, it is by no means the end of his ambitions. A serial restaurant operator who currently employs more than 400, Kuhn is continuing to grow his empire. He has two Sanctuary restaurants opening this summer in DoubleTree by Hilton hotels in Beachwood and Westlake, and a new cocktail lounge, Bin 216, coming shortly to the former Sammy’s in PlayhouseSquare.
Yet, the lessons he learned in Tuscany have worked their way into his business model.
“I found peace in the hills there,” he says. “I made up my mind to bring as much of that home with me as possible. What I want to do in Cibreo is treat people well. After all, success isn’t measured in the number of restaurants you own. It’s measured in the happiness you create.”