Tasty Cleveland enclaves in the New Urban: a corner of Old Brooklyn

29 Oct

There's nothing like a place with character--Murray Hill's Algebra Tea House has plenty of it!

Part of what makes mostly-residential neighborhoods destinations are the little shops and restaurants that dot them. Not chains–chains are deadly, and they only (with the exception of fast food) avoid cities like the plague. Is there an Olive Garden or Outback in any American downtown? I’ve never seen any, and I’m delighted. These are the places that create pleasant little surprises for visitors, and oases for residents–a favorite luncheonette, a great ethnic food supplier, some middle-aged lady with a dream and a little money put by who finally decides to open that quirky shop. This is what made W. 25th before lots of restaurants moved in–you could swing into City Buddha and drool over a hand-painted Indonesian film poster and grab your Temple Spice incense and some fascinating little tschotchke to brighten up a room at home (City Buddha left us some time ago, relocating to suburbia with none of the dimly-lit mystery they used to have in Ohio City).  It’s what made Coventry back in the day before some chains and higher-end spots moved in. Little Italy has a lot of it, as does Tremont. Reasons to go someplace other than visiting family or friends.

A cycling event last summer sent pedalers to Old Brooklyn's Michael's Bakery

One of my pals recently moved to Old Brooklyn, which I knew only from Art House and the zoo. She’s still settling in, but her foundational sense of gastronomic inquiry had already enabled her to uncover two treasures on Broadview Road, which she introduced me to yesterday. One was Michael’s Bakery, at 4478 Broadview Rd. Obviously its charms are known to residents–it was packed at 3 pm on a work day, full of folks getting bread, kuchen, other pastries and cookies. Why oh why didn’t I take photos of the adorable Halloween sugar cookies? Yes, there were purple-sprinkled moons and other delectables, but the giant ones shaped like candy corn and delicately colored with an ombre progression of yellow through orange…oh, that deserved visual commemoration. The place made me realize how long it’s been since I was in a real, old-fashioned family bakery–small, packed, and full of its own treasures. No one wants a calorie count on the cookie “sandwiches” packed with delicious creamy goo! Luckily, my downfall does not come in these forms; I was a virtuous bread buyer. Even the outside has its charm–late-blooming fuschia geraniums were nodding at hot-pink benches, and they gave the place identity.

La famiglia Gentile (it means "nice", and they are)

A miniscule stroll away is Gentile’s Imported Italian Food–a danger zone for me in every way. I’m not Italian, but I grew up in an Italian-dominated area, food-wise, and it shaped all my tastes. College? Study abroad in Rome. Grad school and after? Research trips to Venice, Siena, Limone, Naples, Florence, Turin, and many little towns–and the big one, food-wise: Bologna. Did I have a week’s flirtation with the cutest Italian waiter ever, Agostino Caputo? I sure did (and remember his name 30 years later)! Did his sympathetic boss at one of the best high-end restaurants in the city allow me to eat highly-subsidized meals my student budget would have never been able to afford. Si!  Well the Gentiles senior aren’t from Bologna, but they did come to Cleveland from Molise province, southeast of Rome, and whoever taught Mama how to cook should be beatified. Two generations work in the place, which has several divisions–the bakery, full of many a cookie (my friend Miss D had to have several types of almond temptations, including one punctuated with pignoli (pine) nuts) and with attractive sample wedding cakes on the counter; the store (imported pastas, olive oils, bruschetta spreads, balsamic vinegars); the deli (a genoa salami tempted me, but there were many cold cuts); a catering operation (I wish I had an occasion for them!); and…pizza. What care I for any of the rest, if pizza be present?

After lunch, not a pizza crumb remained on our Gentile's table

Now, Cleveland and I have our pizza differences. That anyone could think Mama Santa’s in Little Italy even has EDIBLE pizza is beyond me. A disgrace, with its oversweet sauce and rubbery crust. I’m happy with Angelo’s in Lakewood or Rascal House during moments of intense hunger, but can they stack up with the most average Philly or Jersey Shore pizza? No, they cannot. Any spot with a wood-burning oven (even Macaroni Grille!) does a respectable job, but, in general, Cleveland’s pizza makes me wary. As we placed our order, my head snapped: I saw the generous cheeseless rectangles (can be bought as singles), I’ve seen in Italy’s tavolas caldas; we weren’t getting that variety, but this was promising. And it delivered. By far, my plain old cheese pizza (the best way to comparatively test) was the best I’ve had in Cleveland–by far, I say (Miss D was scarfing down her artichoke number, and seemed deeply satisfied, but had no inclination to talk). The cheese was real mozzarella, the kind that stretches and stretches until it’s a mere thread, and still doesn’t want to let go. You don’t see it much nowadays, anywhere–it’s too expensive. The crust had just the right blisteryness–oh, it and the sauce were delicious.There are three or so tables in the place, and they close at six (and are closed Mondays), so plan well. You can call ahead at (216) 351-1161; during the week they close at 6, Saturday at 5 and Sundays at 2–closed Monday.

In a college town like Bloomington, IN, you can munch on a bagel in the Runcible Spoon's wildflower-filled front yard. Why not encourage more small-time spots in Cleveland's downtown and midtown?.

These are the kinds of spots that are family-run, family-vetted, delicious, and very special. We’ve got lots of empty enclaves in the city, particularly on Euclid stretches near Reserve Square or up by CSU, and spots like this are rare. CSU’s going to be breaking ground in January on a big new development north of Chester–dorms, apartments, retail, food, entertainment. This is great–much of that area, particularly around Payne, is a human wasteland right now; it will tie in with Tower Press and some of the live/work artist units on Superior, places that haven’t had lots of dining options. If only some natural developments could accompany the inevitable plastic, commercial ones. In university towns, they’re a natural.During my recent Bloomington trip, it was hard to choose between a Tibetan restaurant owned by the Dalai Lama’s brother and a Turkish spot with pillow-cushioned seating options; old houses with wildflower front yards, that had been there since I was a student, were still going strong with their funky mix of student waiters, mismatched cutlery, and delicious food. The ambiance is fun in places like that, the feel is genuine. It’s be great if some generous–or crafty–local landlord would break down an empty warehouse into smaller units with fairly low rents and limited leases. Perhaps an entrepreneur could start up thriftily, do well, and move to bigger digs, while another circulated into the space. A stomach can dream.



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