It's a Saturday night at 3 Palms Pizzeria & Bakery on the western end of Hudson's First & Main retail hub. While it isn't yet 7 p.m., the softly lit dining room is already jammed with the usual suburban suspects. Young parents with restless offspring, wine-sipping seniors and snuggly date-nighters crowd around rustic wooden tables, while fans of house-made cocktails and craft beers take up every stool at the handsome, poured-concrete bar.
Though the demographics may not be unique, here's something that is: Despite their various interests, nearly all these food-and-fun seekers will leave 3 Palms feeling happy and well served. How is it possible for one casual restaurant to satisfy so many types of diners? For insight, look to chef, restaurateur and savvy operator Shawn Monday.
The 40-year-old is a veteran of Northeast Ohio's restaurant revival and can trace his culinary cred all the way back to 1996 when he accepted a sous chef position at the Inn at Turner's Mill, Hudson's former landmark restaurant. For a young, ambitious chef like Monday, landing a gig at a forward-thinking spot, such as Turner's Mill, was big.
"So many fine Cleveland-area chefs got their start there," he recalls of chefs such as Pura Vida and Blue Canyon Kitchen and Tavern's Brandt Evans. "The owners gave their kitchen team so much freedom and encouraged us to learn from one another. It was a great, unique experience, almost like being in college."
By the time Monday left Turner's Mill in 2003, he had risen to executive chef and was poised to partner in the nearby Downtown 140. There he sharpened his culinary and business acumen, finally stepping out on his own in 2010 as owner of Hudson's casually chic One Red Door.
His empire has accelerated since then. Together with his wife, Tiffany, and designer Michael Schwartz, the chef opened gourmet burger joint Flip Side in 2011, right next to One Red Door. Additional Flip Side outposts have sprouted in Chagrin Falls and Columbus, with a Flats location set to open this fall. The team — which now includes general manager and co-owner Bob Sotka — launched 3 Palms Pizzeria and Bakery in October 2012.
Passion is the impetus behind all his labors, says Monday. "Coming in to work each morning, you literally have an empty plate in front of you," he says. "You make everything from scratch, putting love into everything you make. It's brutal work, and sometimes you get your ass kicked. But at the end of the day, you go home knowing you've done a great job. That's hospitality. That's what keeps us going."
And 3 Palms is a case in point. Home to authentic Neapolitan-style pizza, served straight from a 7,000-pound stone oven, the 106-seat restaurant blends knowledgeable service, moderate prices and precise execution. It dishes up Italian fare in an energetic space that's part Tuscan barn and part upscale urban watering hole.
Monday — an admitted perfectionist who never buys anything he can make by hand — is in fine form here. "We're making pizza just like they do it in Italy," says the chef, pointing out the requisite sacks of imported "00" wheat flour and crates of San Marzano tomatoes that double as dining room decor.
With an average internal temperature of 900 degrees, the hardwood-burning oven requires constant attention to turn out perfect, crisp-edged pies.
"This is so different from anything I've ever done before," Monday marvels. "The concept is so much fun, sometimes it almost feels like performance art."
The finished pies look like art too. Topped with items such as house-made meatballs, local goat cheese and house-smoked mozzarella over a fragrant frame of slightly blistered crust, they are an irresistible combo of comfort and culinary technique. No surprise that versions such as the margherita ($12), topped with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, basil and extra-virgin olive oil attract traditionalists. Meanwhile, iterations such as the Rapini ($14), decked with tender, slightly astringent broccoli rabe and plenty of finely ground, house-made pork sausage beckon the adventurous palate.
If pizza were all 3 Palms offered, it would still be worth a trip. Although small, the menu includes a host of other rustic Italian dishes that invite sharing around the table.
Consider the oversized meatballs, weighing in at a hefty 6 1/2 ounces. Options include lamb, turkey-chicken and gluten-free vegetable versions. We stuck with the traditional ($7), a blend of freshly ground beef, pork and veal lightened with house-made breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Tender and toothsome, the meatball comes in a pool of classic tomato sauce, slow simmered with pork neck bones, and with a thick slab of freshly baked ciabatta bread from in-house pastry chef Kim Horner that's paired with a dab of rich, house-made ricotta.
At just $12, an ample meat board was a steal, piled high with whisper-thin slices of imported Parma, Italy, prosciutto and two types of salami, including a house-made Tuscan-style version with peppercorns and red wine. Pickled fennel, carrots and parsnips helped balance the richness. A pile of crostini added crunch and heft.
For pass-around abundance, we added an order of very spicy hot peppers ($6.50), whole roasted in the pizza oven and lightly glazed with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and Parmesan. To tame the heat, a plate of Horner's freshly baked breads ($4) — served with a drizzle of sweet, aged balsamic and a portion of grassy Tuscan olive oil — was ideal.
Two entrees — a house-made pasta du jour and a rotisserie roasted organic chicken — round out the menu.
On this night, we enjoyed a portion of so-so sweet potato gnocchi rescued by the addition of satiny spinach and slices of braised short ribs ($18). But we were downright crazy about the entire half of a brined and roasted Bell and Evans chicken, fork tender to the bone with layer upon layer of flavor beneath its sweet and salty skin ($17). On the side, roasted fingerling potatoes and a giant bouquet of broccoli rabe made for a profoundly comforting winter's repast.
While the restaurant boasts a full bakery, what really wowed us was the freshly made gelato ($4) in sassy flavors such as ginger, mango-coconut and Luxardo cherry-almond.
With a chef-driven menu, a well-designed space and wallet-friendly prices, Monday has created a restaurant that satisfies everyone from the seasoned gourmets to on-the-go families.