In the "Inferno," Dante Alighieri, the 14th-century Italian poet who, like Madonna, is usually mentioned solely by first name, reserved the ninth and deepest layer of Hell, Cocytus, for traitors, such as Judas, Brutus and Cassius (all three of whom have the really bad fortune to have Satan chewing on them for eternity — ouch!). It is, however, a little-known fact that among these damned souls also dwell those who choose to consistently dine at chain and corporate-owned Italian restaurants while small, charming eateries that offer superior cuisine and authentic ambiance struggle and wither away in alarming numbers. While this facet of eternal damnation may yet be little known due to our having made it up just now, it should be a recognizable truth that the enticement of free refills on salad and garlic breadsticks is not a sound basis on which to make informed dining decisions.
Of course, dear reader, if you care enough about gustatory satisfaction to be reading the A la Carte section of this magazine (not to mention this brilliantly conceived and well-written article), then you are no neophyte in the ways of dining. This having been established, we will tell of a place known as Little Italy, wherein nestle a multitude of excellent little Italian spots running the gamut from cafes and pizzerias to fine-dining gems. (They also host a little block party every August that someone you know may have chanced past.)
Among the newest of the neighborhood's many wonderful offerings is Gusto! Ristorante Italiano (Italian Restaurant for the cognate-impaired), a fantastic eatery that offers the best slice of what dining in Little Italy (or in the larger, boot-shaped one) should be like.
The father-son team of Rick and Fabio Salerno opened the restaurant in the former Porcelli's space in November 2003 and, shortly thereafter, allowed Antonio Calandra, a waiter and native of Sicily, to buy into the business as well. The Salernos finalized their core team with the addition of chef Michael Annandono, a native Clevelander who worked and trained for three years in the Piedmonte region of Italy before returning home to spend time in the kitchens of the Warehouse District's Circo Zibibbo and Osteria di Valerio & Al.
With their culinary needs well in hand, Rick and Fabio set about creating a charming location that, Rick says, "many guests immediately describe as romantic ... like it's out of a movie." Walls of pale peach, subtle lighting and gauzy drapes contribute to a sort of warm Tuscan setting that we found markedly reminiscent of summer dining in Florence, despite the frigid rain that accompanied our first visit (ahhh, summer in Cleveland!). The soft candlelight and Frank and Dino crooning in the background also help cement the almost cinematic setting that the team at Gusto! has achieved.
But, just in case all the above factors, plus the near-perfectly executed Italian cuisine and unfailingly polite service staff, aren't sufficient, Rick, a professional musician for most of his life, strolls from table to table with his accordion, playing songs ranging from Italian classics and Rat Pack standards to Broadway melodies. The effect is a perfect complement to the rest of the experience.
On our second visit, we enjoyed a flawless summer night on the patio and the sound of Salerno's playing echoing on the streets of Little Italy seemed almost too fittingly appropriate, like -- well, a movie. (It was only with the most heroic self-restraint that we refrained from begging him to play Nino Rota's "Godfather Waltz" so we could do our best Don Corleone impersonation.)
Far from the stereotypes that have often beset Italian culture in this country, though, is the excellent and authentic cuisine of chef Annandono. For those who have grown accustomed to the thick red sauces, meatballs and so forth that are too frequently found in Italian restaurants, Annandono's Piedmontese/ Tuscan cuisine will be a pleasant and educational experience. At Gusto!, as in northern Italy, the dishes are more likely to contain either cream sauces or reductions. One also finds a greater sensitivity to seasonal and local ingredients, such as hazelnuts, rosemary, mushrooms and artichokes, as well as a greater array of flavors. The menu itself, while by no means large, offers plenty of attractive options for every taste.
The antipasti section is an appropriate beginning, featuring six items, each delicious, distinct and portioned to satisfy, but not fill. The Soufflé di Carciofi (artichoke soufflé) with roasted red-pepper sauce, despite eggs and heavy cream, is at once light and luxurious, with a hint of citrus that keeps the dish from overwhelming the palate ($10).
In this same vein, the Carpcaccio di Manzo e Funghi ($10) could, perhaps, be the perfect appetizer. All that's required, for those unfamiliar with the dish, is a genuine enjoyment of raw beef, which we thankfully possess. Annandono presents a classic version of this favorite, wherein the paper-thin slices of marinated beef are accompanied by slivered Crimini mushrooms and baby greens and lightly dressed with olive oil and a hint of lemon.
Caprese al Vincotto e Mozzarella di Bufala (fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad) is faithfully re-created exactly as we remember the dish from Italy: simple, but ideal in its simplicity ($8). Incidentally, that's buffalo as in the ruminant quadruped, not the moderately populated, urban obstacle one encounters between here and Niagara Falls. That being clear, buffalo mozzarella is the most prized fresh mozzarella for flavor and is made, in America, from a combination of water-buffalo milk and cow's milk.
We also enjoyed the Proscuitto di San Daniele con Tricolore di Olive ($10), finding it most representative of how we view the antipasti concept. Thin slices of proscuitto (Italian for "ham," though the curing, drying and pressing process is a little more involved than what one finds with your typical American deli ham) are accompanied by a mixture of briny, imported olives and a splash of light, fruity olive oil. Here again, simplicity allows the ingredients to speak for themselves, resulting in a satisfying dish. Sometimes, the most important factor in good cooking, and the one most often neglected, is restraint. This is a lesson that Annandono has learned well and which shows throughout the entrees, as well.
While the dishes we found to be excellent at Gusto! are too numerous to mention — essentially, all of them — some deserve special note. Voracious fans of well-prepared game dishes, we were thrilled by the Pappardelle con Sugo di Cinghiale, a rich, Bolognese-style wild-boar sauce tossed with wide pappardelle noodles ($18), as well as the Coniglio Arrosto con Rosmarino, a slow-roasted leg of rabbit with tomato and rosemary that could be compared to a confit in taste and texture ($23). The Cavatelli con Crema di Funghi ($16) with its rich mushroom sauce was excellent, though a little on the heavier side, but not in detriment to the dish.
The majority of the meat items on the menu are delicious and sensibly prepared. Maiale Ripieno con Saldati Rossi ($21), an olive- and spinach-stuffed pork tenderloin with red currants, is a treat for the palate, as is the Saltimbocca alla Romana ($26), where the tender pounded veal is wonderfully accented by proscuitto and hints of sage. Lastly, and to Gusto's credit, all finfish entrees are run as specials only, ensuring that only the freshest and most seasonal items are showcased. During our visits, salmon, halibut and tuna were each featured in appetizing compositions.
The wine list is moderately priced and features a great sampling of Italians to complement the cuisine, from heavy Tuscan reds to lighter wines such as Pinot Grigio.
It often seems that, in today's restaurant world, near-perfect dining experiences tend to be rare or come at all too high a price. Corporate and chain-owned restaurants offer a pretested, manufactured product from the walls to the plates, giving consumers the illusion of a dining experience without the actual emotional response that should accompany it. We are gladdened to know, though, that in Little Italy there is a relaxed, romantic spot where the owner smiles and plays the accordion, the food is top-notch and warm breezes blow though the open door, bringing the sounds of an old neighborhood that's finding new life.
At Gusto!, as in life, sometimes it's nice to catch a little bit of the magic that, if even for the span of an hour or two, casts its luster across the mundane nature of the everyday and transforms it into memories of a time and place when we wrote some portion of the stories of our lives.
Gusto! Ristorante Italiano, 12022 Mayfield Road, Little Italy, Cleveland, (216) 791-9900. Hours: Tue-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - 11 p.m., Sun 4 - 9 p.m.