It's been another rugged year for the restaurant
trade, a business, frankly, that is
rough and tumble in the best of times.
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The past year was dominated by corporate scandals jarring an economy that increasingly seemed to be swirling around the drain, coupled with the long, uncertain build-up to war in Iraq and growing international tensions. Hardly a conducive climate for getting people to swagger through the doors for a night on the town.
Yet Northeast Ohio's dining scene is keeping it together. Sure, there have been a few closings but so far no more than in any other given year (including the boom times). And new spots continue to pop up on the landscape, from Vietnamese pho houses downtown to upscale soul-food joints in the Flats and on Shaker Square.
Business may have fallen off here and there as people tighten belts or stay glued to the latest on CNN at home. But while traffic has dropped in some places, we've also squeezed through packed dining rooms as wide-eyed servers rushed to turn tables fast enough to keep up with the flow of new patrons and their orders.
That's the good news: People will eat; we find comfort in food and convivial company. And Cleveland is home to a dining public that is more educated, cosmopolitan and adventurous than ever before we ain't just meat and potatoes a public that will eat out and support both longtime favorites and inventive newcomers. So the region's culinary scene is well positioned to weather this storm and come out the other side ready for the climb back up.
Meantime, we turned once again to you, our readers, to select your favorite Northeast Ohio eateries. The ballots were bound into the January 2003 issue and were also available for the first time online on our Web site.
Turnout was even better than last year, giving us a full plate. Of all those who voted, more than a third were contacted by phone to verify their ballots. The votes were then tallied in more than 40 final categories by the accounting firm Meaden & Moore.
Here then are the winners you chose.
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Best New Restaurant
(opened between Jan. 1, 2002, and Jan. 1, 2003)
Two years ago, reps from the Hyatt hotel chain and LR Development Co. saw the vibe of Dan Krasny's popular Vivo restaurant in Chicago as exactly what they wanted for the circa-1890 Arcade, then being restored and its upper floors converted to a new Hyatt.OThe discovery that Krasny is an expatriate Clevelander made it seem like fate.
"As soon as I saw the space, I knew what it could be," Krasny recalls. "I go, This is Vivo. This is perfect.' "
Krasny hadn't kept up on his hometown and didn't know the chefs or the market, but he landed Todd Stein (right) as his executive chef. Prepping for the lunch crowd, Stein waves happily toward "the heart" of his kitchen, the wood-burning grill glowing below a checkerboard of granite and steel.
"It turned out almost exactly as I pictured it when I first walked in," says Krasny.
Readers voted their approval of Krasny's vision, naming Vivo the top new dining spot with twice the votes of its closest competitor.
Little Italy, Cleveland
We been doing this 40-some years," Danny Scaffidi observes. "I think we know what we're doing by now."
He refers to the family business he's been part of since age 14. His cousin and co-owner, Nino Starvaggi (above left), started even younger, at age 12, back when Mama Santa's debuted in July 1961. Scaffidi's parents, Guy and Nancy, opened the restaurant with only 12 tables. But the Little Italy eatery soon took over one and then another neighboring store to keep up with the number of customers.
Guy finally retired at age 73, but now, at 82, he and Nancy continue to drop in once in a while to keep an eye on the business and taste what's coming out of the kitchen. Starvaggi still tosses pies on many nights to feed the crowds that line up out the doors and onto the sidewalk along Mayfield Road. When a cook doesn't show, Scaffidi dives in, too.
Mama Santa herself, Scaffidi's grandmother, brought the sauce recipes over from the family's ancestral home near Palermo in Sicily. The restaurant also uses homemade manicotti, cannelloni, cavatelli and other pastas.
"We have our secret ingredients," Scaffidi says cagily. "We do things like nobody else does, we cook it like nobody else does and we make dough like nobody else does."
On average, Mama Santa's sells 1,200 to 1,500 pizzas a week, equally divided between sit-down and carryout. The final "Seinfeld" episode in 1998 delivered a barrage of takeout orders about 400 pies to set a weeknight record, Starvaggi recalls. "For a couple hours, it seemed like it was everybody in the world calling in."
Best Soul Food
Phil the Fire
Shaker Square, Cleveland
While attending Stanford as an economics major, Cleveland-born Phil Davis
(above right) made a trip to Los Angeles, where he was introduced to Roscoe's
House of Chicken 'n' Waffles. Though dubious of the unusual combo, Davis discovered
he liked it and kept it in the back of his mind.
Fast-forward a few years and several jobs later. In 2001, after catering part time out of his car providing peach cobbler, banana pudding and other home-cooked items for parties and picnics Davis launched an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at the dining hall in The Civic in Cleveland Heights. Based on the popular response to his Southern-style soul food offerings, Davis was approached to take over a space on Shaker Square and turn it into a full-service restaurant.
He cautiously charted a soft opening in January 2002, with the notion of a grand opening that March.
"To this day, we have yet to have a grand opening. We haven't had a chance to plan a grand opening," Davis says, shaking his head at how Phil the Fire has taken wing.
Diners walk in, take one sniff and ask if their grandmother is back in the kitchen. The menu of "comfort food for the soul" featuring such items as collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and sweet-potato pie draws a diverse crowd to the restaurant, which, of necessity, just expanded with new seating downstairs. That he has patrons making regular trips from as far as Youngstown, Columbus and Pittsburgh, has Davis eyeing future expansion to other locales and even franchising his concept.
"Other than my daughter being born, this is the best thing that's ever happened
to me," he says with a wide smile.
Best Beer Selection, Best Sports Bar
Winking Lizard Tavern
Bedford Heights, Canton, Cleveland (downtown), Cleveland Heights, Fairlawn, Independence, Macedonia and Peninsula
I love my job," admits Winking Lizard partner and vice president of operations John Lane (left), the man who chooses the restaurant's beers: 100 U.S. and foreign craft brews on the World Tour of Beers, plus about 30 mass-market labels. Every Jan. 1, he rolls out a fresh list, replacing 50 to 70 beers with new labels winnowed down from 200 to 400 brews he's tried in the past year.
"I do enjoy throwing a zinger on every once in a while," he says, "one that might be a total off-the-wall taste or one that I know [customers] might not really enjoy, but it's a style that they should try."
Oddly enough, Lane wasn't a beer drinker when he joined the Lizard in 1988. A vodka-and-tonic man, he disliked the taste of mass-market beers. But eight years ago, the World Tour needed re-energizing. Lane read a book by beer expert Michael Jackson, tried some craft brews and "fell in love with beer."
While he acknowledges that many envy his job description, Lane stresses the demanding side, too: "You get [hundreds of] samples of beer in and you're trying to whittle it down and say, Oh, these are the 100 best beers that I wanna feature this year.' It's tough."
The job also has perils. Not every brew that passes Lane's lips is a winner, especially if the sample has been stored improperly.
"Open a bottle and you smell that real skunky smell right off the bat," he says, distaste curling his lip. "Then you just try it and it's Gahhh!' no carbonation, flat, ewww. Nasty. Just take it over to the sink and pour it right down the drain. You're done with it."
At the end of the day, though, he says the best part of his job is going into the cooler, pulling out a cold one and trying something new.
(Lane takes feedback, suggestions and questions on beer via his e-address:
Best German/ Central European
Frank Strele's Slovenian Country House, Cleveland
When Frank Sterle took over a small cafe on East 55th Street in the 1960s, he posted no menu. Why bother? He only offered diners Wiener schnitzel, roast pork or sausage. "Three choices you either took it or you didn't," recalls Margot Glinski (above), who manages Sterle's for the current owner, who purchased the neighborhood mainstay from Sterle in 1988.
The menu has expanded since those early days now ranging from American comfort foods, such as homemade meat loaf, to segedin goulash as has the restaurant, which now seats 250 in its main dining hall alone. Glinski says Sterle's "kitchen ladies" are all Croatian or Slovenian immigrants who bring the nuances of their particular culinary traditions to the mix.
"There's really no recipe; they just throw it in puhp puhp puhp," she explains, miming tossing ingredients into a pot. "It's like home cooking. There is nothing measured here. [The dishes are] really never perfectly the same." All gravies and soups are made from scratch.
While prices are family friendly, portions are huge. On Saturday nights, you can work off the calories on the restaurant's dance floor.
"We have customers coming here that are 80 and better, and they dance the polka and they don't come off that floor until the whole set is over," Glinski says admiringly. "They're in good shape mentally, physically. Polka keeps them alive."
Pierluigi "Pierre" Gregori
Ristorante Giovanni's, Beachwood
Growing up near Milan, Italy, Pierluigi Gregori got his first taste of the restaurant biz at age 14. He enjoyed working around people and food, but his parents wanted him to become a mechanical engineer for a more secure future and better pay.
A dutiful son, Gregori tried it until a machine-shop accident mangled one of his fingers.
"I said, That's it. No more.' " He enrolled in a two-year restaurant vocational school and every time he learned how to make a new dish, he went home and prepared it for his parents. "Slowly, they started to accept my job," he says with a smile.
After graduation, he worked in Lyons, France; then Spain; then England, always at fine-dining establishments. He then embarked on 4 1/2 years with a cruise-ship line, which eventually led him here. As with so many Europeans on our dining scene, the story begins: "When I met this girl from Cleveland..."
"Cleveland? Ohio? I didn't even know where it was at that time," he admits. But he liked what he saw, especially during a visit to the White House restaurant run by the Quagliata brothers in Mentor. A conversation with John Quagliata led to a job offer.
So, around Labor Day 1977, Gregori established himself in Northeast Ohio. "When I came here it was the summer," he notes. "I didn't know about the winter." He arrived just in time for the infamous blizzard of 1977-'78, which paralyzed the city. "Ah, what a disaster! I never saw so much snow in my life!"
But he stayed, dividing his time between working dinner hours at the White House and lunch at Carl Quagliata's Ristorante Giovanni's in Beachwood. When the White House closed in 1980, Giovanni's became his full-time gig.
These days, Gregori arrives at the restaurant by 10 a.m. and remains until 11 p.m. or midnight. Between lunch and dinner, he works on the wine list, server training, a daily staff meeting. He is maitre d', sommelier and whatever other hat needs wearing. "Everything is for the enjoyment of the guest," he says. "I like to make them feel special."
In the European tradition, he sees service as a passion. "It's got to come from the heart," he says. If it doesn't, he adds, you might as well be a mechanical engineer.
This year's winning reader, drawn at random from all of the ballots we received, is Stephanie Betts of Fairview Park. She won a $100 gift certificate to Lockkeepers in Valley View and four tickets to the Silver Spoon Awards Party on June 17.
We caught up with Betts as she was preparing for a visit to Tremont's new martini and wine bar, 806, prior to catching her reservation at Fahrenheit. Not surprising, considering Betts noted on her ballot that she eats out about 28 times a month for lunch and a dozen times for dinner.
"Actually, I really do like to cook," she said with a laugh, "though it doesn't look like it."
Congratulations to Stephanie and our thanks to everyone who voted this year.