The restaurant scene in Northeast Ohio is a pretty small pond when compared with major cities such as Chicago, New York — and even Columbus. Subsequently, those of us who inhabit said pond bump into one another pretty frequently, meaning good news travels fast and gossip moves at light speed.
So chances are good that whether you’re an undertalented executive chef, overly amorous dining room manager or world-class bartender, your reputation will precede and follow you from eatery to eatery (a fact that still fails to curb most restaurant employees’ appetites for mayhem and mirth).
Far on the positive side of the culinary buzz about town lies Michael Annandono, executive chef and owner of Little Italy’s newest dining destination, Michaelangelo’s.
I’ve been following Annandono’s career and cuisine for years, unfailingly pleased with his renditions of true Italian cooking, particularly his accomplished interpretations of the dishes of Tuscany and Piedmont.
A native Clevelander, Annandono worked and trained for three years in Italy’s Piedmont region before returning home to spend time in the kitchens of the Warehouse District’s Circo/Zibibbo and Osteria di Valerio and Al. He also helmed the kitchen at Little Italy’s Gusto! prior to opening his new venture with partner Joe Rutigliano.
It was during his previous tenure that I first wrote about Annandono’s cuisine for this magazine, giving him and Gusto! (which is still a wonderful place to eat) what may well be one of the most enthusiastic reviews I’ve ever written.
I was equally pleased to visit his new eatery, which adds the workload of ownership to his already extensive culinary duties. To assist him with front-of-the-house management, Annandono relies on Marco Rossi, who seemingly accompanies the opening of every new upscale Italian eatery in the Cleveland area, and, therefore, should be a recognizable face and name to many.
To be fair, Rossi’s enduring ubiquity in the industry arises primarily from his polished hand at the fine art of hospitality and not from some perceived mystic power as the totemic harbinger of opening-year good fortune. (Ha! Save that sentence for Scrabble hints!)
Regardless, our recent visits to Michaelangelo’s found Rossi extending his sure hand in effortless catering to the guests, an example followed by the service staff, which was quite good on both occasions.
Housed in a 19th-century structure that has seen Italian restaurants come and go, from Villa D’Estes to less successful spots such as Vetturini’s and Filomena’s, Michaelangelo’s light, modern decor will be a pleasant surprise to diners who recall the building’s clichÃÂ©d former stucco interior.
Lightly hued walls, updated halogen lighting and large French doors that open to a second-story patio give the space a clean, modern, comfortably elegant feel.
If you’re seeking more cozy/clubby surroundings, Michaelangelo’s wine bar offers coffee tables and comfortable chairs by a large fireplace, as well as plenty of seating at the bar itself. This arrangement got big points from me and my better half, as we enjoy retiring to just this sort of space after a meal to enjoy a pleasant digestif or, as is also the case, to really tie one on with the help of some particularly adept martini mixing.
The space is nice for before or after dinner or, really, if you’re just in the market for some apps and an excellent bottle from the thorough yet predictably Italian-heavy wine list.
(Unfortunately for this review, our first visit to Michaelangelo’s found us hooked on a wonderful and fairly affordable sparkling rose, and the second involved too many martinis, so the depths of the wine list will require some amount of self-discovery on your part. Enjoy!)
The piece of information I was chewing on at the outset is this: Michael Annandono may well be the finest practitioner of true Italian cuisine working in Cleveland.
I am unfailingly impressed with his palate, composition and respect for the integrity of his ingredients. Very much in the tradition of true Italian cuisine, Annandono offers food prepared with a simplicity that transforms into restrained extravagance on the plate. This has always been Annandono’s hallmark, and I’m pleased to say that the food at Michaelangelo’s continues the tradition.
For starters, the kitchen offers a number of hot and cold antipasti — my favorite part of the Italian meal. In no particular order, we recommend any of the traditional offerings from the antipasto cart, such as caprese (fresh tomato and mozzarella), bruschetta, imported cured meats and cheeses, eggplant caponata or anything else listed. Priced at $14 per platter, they make for an item to share with the table.
If you’re looking for some tasty things to keep all to yourself, try any of Michaelangelo’s three carpaccios: Kobe beef ($15), tuna ($14) or buffalo ($15), each thematically similar, yet distinguished by slight variations in the accoutrement (porcini mushrooms and white truffle oil with the beef, baby arugula, cremini mushrooms and walnut-infused oil with the buffalo).
Another treat for the arugula fan (which I am) is the insalata di rucola ($10), a nice, light salad blending the peppery green with rich, salty Parmigiano Reggiano and a pleasantly tart blood orange citronella, a perfect palate cleanser in many ways.
Among the hot appetizers, melanzane ($8), a layered eggplant terrine with aged provolone and tomato ragu, was simple and satisfying, as were the cozze e vongole ($12), steamed mussels and clams in a roasted tomato-oregano broth.
Miles away from the pasta most of us grew up with, Annandono’s offerings are well-constructed and delicious, with nary a meatball in sight. The veal cannelloni ($21) with ricotta-and-veal-stuffed pasta tubes draped in a good-but-probably-not-good-for-you pancetta and mascarpone cream sauce was a hit, while the pappardelle with fresh tomato, mozzarella bocconcini and white wine reduction ($18) was a lighter but equally delicious offering.
If you’re in the mood for more protein and less starch, Michaelangelo’s offers nine wonderful sounding entrees. Pizzaiola ($25), thin, sauteed veal scaloppine with mozzarella, olives and a light tomato sauce, was hearty and delicious without overwhelming the palate, as was Annandono’s fairly faithful rendition of veal saltimboca ($26).
Lastly, we sampled the agnello ($27), a braised lamb shank in a port wine lamb sauce. This dish was good, but seemed to insufficiently represent the chef’s usual skill with braising. I mention this only because it paled to my previous experience with Annandono’s braises, while still surpassing many a braised shank I’ve tried elsewhere. (I hold out hope that he will bring one of his awesome wild boar dishes to the new eatery.)
Dessert is a family affair with Annandono’s new bride, pastry chef Stacey DiVincenzo, assisting him with the in-house production of Michaelangelo’s tempting array of offerings.
Regardless of whether you choose to end your meal with a glass of Muscato or a delicious panna cotta, it is absolutely a safe bet to begin your dining experience by heading over to Michaelangelo’s for hospitality, excellent cuisine, and, as a real treat for Little Italy, free, on-premises parking.
What more could you want?
Michaelangelo’s, 2198 Murray Hill Road, Little Italy, (216) 721-0300. Hours: Mon-Thu 5:30 - 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30 - 11 p.m., Sun 5 - 9 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.