My husband isn't very romantic. In truth, neither am I.
We both believe Valentine's Day and Sweetest Day are manufactured holidays created to pad the pockets of chocolatiers, florists and greeting card companies. We're not habitual hand-holders. And it's rare to find us gazing longingly into each other's eyes unless I've lost a contact lens.
To us, such cliches aren't true romance, so for our romantic weekend in the city we opt for more substance and less sap.
With practical matters resolved — dropping off kids and dog at grandma's — Jesse and I begin our weekend at the Glidden House in University Circle, which bills itself as the only boutique hotel in Cleveland. It was the home of the eponymous paint family, built in 1910 and has been remodeled and expanded over the years into a 60-room hotel.
We check into our "vintage suite," part of the original house but without the undesirables of an old structure, such as teeny bathrooms, noise-porous walls and creaky floors. Our room's decor blends old with new seamlessly, with crushed velvet upholstery and dormers residing comfortably beside a retro entertainment cabinet and flat-screen TV. Jesse and I share the bottle of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries waiting there for us, then freshen up for dinner.
On a warm and high-heel-free night, the walk to dinner at Michaelangelo's is an easy and scenic 15 minutes or so through the bustling campus of Case Western Reserve University and past murals of Italian heritage — images of family crests, Italian immigration and religious symbols — that usher you into Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood.
We find the place tucked back from the road and seemingly out of place from the largely residential street. Constructed of natural stone with a peaked roof, Michaelangelo's chimney puffs out smoke that promises a crackling fire inside.
Jesse and I check the place over against universal romantic criteria. Dim lighting? Check. Soft music and quiet conversation? Check. White tablecloths and candles on the table? Check. The fire we expected is there as well, in a lounge furnished with overstuffed leather furniture.
We indulge in rich Italian foods, expensive wine and dessert, the kind of extravagances reserved for couples in love (or those hoping to fall in love). Back at the Glidden House, we decide to bypass another glass of wine by the small bar and sitting area that's more living room than lounge.
From there? Well, let's just say that what happens at the Glidden House stays at the Glidden House.
Our breakfast the next morning consists of oatmeal, yogurt and danishes, served in the house's original parlor and solarium, a carved stone fireplace by our side and an ornately restored ceiling — bearing the original "G" painted on every other beam — overhead. Then it is off to the Cleveland Museum of Art, also a short walk away, where we seek out the collection's most romantic pieces.
We find plenty of nudity, lots of sex, but romance? That takes some digging. Our favorite is The Kiss of Peace and Justice, a 1654 oil painting by Laurent de La Hyre, which depicts an embrace behind a garden fountain between a warrior who's just shed his armor and a woman whose face we cannot see. Yes, the placard tells us, the two are symbols of peace and justice as part of a political statement by the artist, but we love the romantic image all the same. Just as delightful as the art itself is the chance to walk the halls together, unencumbered by a schedule or children, secretly smug to not be the couple shh-ing their children under the glare of the guard.
For lunch, Jesse and I head back to Little Italy, dining at Mia Bella on more Italian gastronomies — stuffed hot peppers, thinly sliced and breaded eggplant, gnocci. It's a small and simple cafe on the corner of Mayfield and Murray Hill, offering lots of great people-watching.
We then head onto the neighborhood's usually bustling streets of galleries, restaurants and shops. The shops and galleries are sparsely trafficked, some are even closed since it is Sunday, but we discover Pennello Gallery. Co-owner Sue Cahn calls out a greeting as we enter — "Come on in! Do you want some wine?" Over a tasting of Apothic Red, she shares enough love stories to revitalize our romantic day.
Cahn herself is an amateur matchmaker, and she has a thick blue binder of notes on matches she's hatching. She has a good track record — eight marriages, no divorces, and three engagements right there in the gallery. The most recent was just the week before our visit, in which she schemed with the future groom to hide the ring in her jewelry case and then "show" it to the bride.
Cahn becomes our romance collaborator, escorting us across the street to Little Italy Wines for a wine-and-cheese selection we could take home with us. Not just any cheese. The cheese.
Turns out Little Italy Wines carries a variety of cheese that's hard to find and hard to resist — Sartori MontAmoré. Its notoriety brings Little Italy visitors and locals to the tiny shop, who need only ask for "the cheese." Even the UPS guy waits for employee Sue Marrone to crack the case so he can take some home.
Though the shop offers weekly wine tastings from 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays (which is often followed by karaoke), Marrone isn't deterred — she cracked open a bottle of Palazzo Della Torre (an Italian ripasso wine) with a block of Sartori cheese. They aren't lying. The stuff's amazing.
We still didn't do much hand-holding or eye-gazing. But we discovered romance in the most unexpected of places. But most romantic — especially for a couple married 15 years with two young children — was the chance to abandon the mundane and savor the moment.
Maybe we're more romantic than we thought.