The first time I visited the new Dante, I walked right past the front door. It's no wonder, really. As befits its former life as a bank, the Lincoln Heights Savings and Loan property in Tremont has a façade that exudes somber reliability. It wasn't until I spotted the glowing green figures on both sides of the doorway windows that I knew I'd found the right place.
Chef and owner Dante Boccuzzi calls the glass sculptures — one male, one female — his "aliens," and is using them to help transform the 52-year-old bank lobby into a whimsical, art-filled retreat. Together with custom glass chandeliers, contemporary wall art, and a collection of gears, gizmos and hand tools worked into the bar top, they create a perfect backdrop for the chef's seriously fun menu. It's composed of playful and precisely designed dishes as painstakingly executed as a banker's balance sheet.
Boccuzzi calls his cuisine "modern American." It's modern in that it is always evolving and American in that it represents a variety of nationalities and tastes, yet the term hardly captures the intensity of each dish.
Take the humble polenta ($6), a staple of Boccuzzi's seasonal kitchen. His exact technique is a secret, but the result is the revelatory polenta: custard-sleek and whispering of mascarpone, Parmesan and Gruyere. Factor in the seasonal toppings such as grilled baby veggies or leg of lamb confit, and homey porridge turns into a sophisticated wonder.
Although much of the menu is Italian-accented, including a variety of risottos ($4 tasting, $8 appetizer) and homemade pastas ($4 tasting, $8 appetizer, $15 entree), the offerings range far beyond the Mediterranean. Try the Asian-accented crudo: broad slices of mellow yellowtail hamachi served atop a pod of tempura-battered and fried okra, offset with avocado and soy-scented shiitake ($17). Or go for the umami-packed Hawaiian tuna tartare ($13), a riff on steak tartare with a poached egg and zesty caper and black olive-spiked remoulade.
The menu is an atlas of Boccuzzi's career, which has taken this Culinary Institute of America grad from Parma to top-rated restaurants in Manhattan, San Francisco, London, Paris and Hong Kong. His 2007 return to Cleveland saw the launch of the first Dante, inside Valley View's Lockkeepers space, which lasted little more than a year.
"I'm able to be myself here," Boccuzzi say of his new digs. "I'm not bound by the structure, which always felt like a steakhouse, or by the demographics, or by the need to try to please the former clientele."
This time out, Boccuzzi wants to offer something for everyone, including vegans, who can count on at least one animal-free entree per season. Other options range from a 21-course tasting menu at the chef's table to a $4 sushi happy hour at the bar. Handmade to order, the six-piece sushi rolls — spicy, creamy tuna, salmon "three ways," and avocado and asparagus — are fresh and tightly crafted. They also provide a preview of Ginko, the downstairs sushi bar that Boccuzzi plans to open this winter.
The ample charcuterie plate ($14) is probably the best in town, both for quality and price. During our visit, the house-made components included coins of capocollo and sopressata, thick slices of fat-and-pistachio-piqued mortadella, chewy duck prosciutto, a rosy pileup of "Parmatown" prosciutto, sturdy country pork pâté, and an artful quenelle of chicken liver mousse with the texture of whipped butter. Pickled veggies, whole-grain mustard, and paper-thin Sardinian flatbread, seasoned with rosemary and olive oil, round out the feast.
Boccuzzi also has a gift for taking crowd-pleasers and ratcheting up the pizzazz. A 16-ounce ribeye ($29) is goosed with basil, lemon, and garlic chimichurri and comes with a towering king oyster mushroom. The veal short ribs ($26) are done up Oscar-style with crabmeat, hollandaise and asparagus frites while the savory sea scallops ($25) are nested on braised spinach and draped in spicy chorizo vinaigrette.
He gives similar upgrades to the dessert lineup. Tahitian vanilla creme brulee ($9) is whimsically baked and served inside a wide-mouth canning jar with a topknot of shredded phyllo and a tiny pitcher of sweet, tart passion fruit syrup on the side. And the affogato al caffe ($4) — a tall glass layered with house-made vanilla ice cream, freshly baked almond-chocolate biscotti and a shot of hot espresso — is a great ending that adds the exclamation point to Dante's newest incarnation.
When You Go
Dante, 2247 Professor Ave, Cleveland, OH, 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us
Mon-Thu 4:30-11 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
Look Out For
The custom-made Candy Cart, which may roll up to your table at meal's end, is loaded with sparkling glass canisters full of Dum Dums, Tootsie Rolls and more. It's a chuckle-inducing twist and a reminder of the chef's ever-present sense of humor.