The Best Bites of 2019

I wrote a Best Bites of 2018 last year, but by the time I finished it it was so late into the new year that I deleted it. I’m making sure I don’t procrastinate this year.

I continued cooking at home more and learned how to make stuffed cabbage in the electric pressure cooker. That was a game changer. Stuffed cabbage always seemed so intimidating – so I’d just go to Sokolowski’s and get one when I had a craving. Now I can make a big batch and freeze them to enjoy over a few months whenever I want. Jeffrey from Pressure Luck Cooking shared his Grandma Lil’s stuffed cabbage recipe, and I made them for the first time last January for my parents’ birthday party. Stuffed cabbage is my father’s favorite thing in the world. I fed the entire family of 7 and sent some home with him. I brought him some last week again when we had hot dogs roasted in the fireplace. If you follow Jeffrey’s recipe, I recommend using half of the tomato juice (one 46 oz can instead of two) and halving the other sauce ingredients. I’ve found it is too much sauce for the 8 quart pressure cooker, and I threw a bunch of it out the first time. Half the amount is perfect and still plenty saucy.

I’ve been enjoying a variety of soups every month at the Cleveland Soup and Bread Experiment at the BottleHouse in Cleveland Heights. Every month about six to eight volunteers make a batch of soup each and bring it the BottleHouse. There is always a good variety of soups, including vegan and vegetarian options. Any possible allergens are noted on the soup signs. On The Rise donates a variety of bread and baked goods. The proceeds go to a different charity every month. This month’s Soup and Bread Experiment is on Wednesday the 15th (it tends to be on the third Wednesday of the month) from 6:30-8:30 and will be benefiting the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. I haven’t decided what I’ll be making, but I’ve made autumn lentil and pumpkin soup, split pea and ham, zuppa toscana, straciatella, beef barley and Italian wedding soup in the past. Some of my favorites from other soup makers include Judi Strauss’ grandmother’s mushroom soup, Mulligatawny soup, and tortellini and kielbasa soup.

Sichuan Hot Pot continues to be a draw for my friends and me. We get a nice-sized group together (6 or 8), and everyone orders one thing for the table to share. My favorites include the crispy fish hot & spicy, garlic shrimp, and their roasted eggplant with garlic sauce (we’ve learned to ask for the sauce on the side so the eggplant stays crisp). The shredded pork with pickled cabbage (pictured here) was an early favorite, as were the crispy spare ribs. We have only had one or two dishes that did not thrill us.

Shredded pork with pickled cabbage

Roasted eggplant

Crispy fish hot & spicy

I went on a queso kick for a while this summer and learned I enjoyed chorizo – especially if it is combined with queso. I always thought it was too spicy for me. My friend Dale ordered this queso and chorizo at Blue Habanero, and I ignored the combo app platter I ordered for the table to help inhale his. No other queso has exceeded the excellence of this one, and the tortilla chips have some good flavor to them as well. Paired with an octopus (margarita and sangria) I was a very happy girl that night.

Polpetta is my favorite place to go for special dinners. They did a Throwback Dinner honoring all the great things from Graffiti: a Social Kitchen. The Graffiti Artist featured the chorizo potato skin, French onion soup egg roll and a pb&j wing. The second course was an ancient grain salad. The third course was salmon on a delectable cauliflower puree with fried Brussels, and the fourth course was the Deconstructed Monte Cristo (my fave). Rounded off with the O.G. Fat Kid. We all loved it. We enjoyed Adam Bostwick’s whimsy so much that I was the first person to reserve a table (for 8 people) for their Christmas Dinner, which featured courses inspired by Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (a potato croquette with a red, The Grinch (“Roast Beast”), A Christmas Story (duck over coconut rice), and the most unusual dish but biggest hit, Chocolate Spaghetti inspired by the movie Elf. Adam said it was the weirdest thing he’d ever made, and he was nervous about how it would be received. Well, we’re still talking about it – in a good way.

My sister’s family lives in Medina, so when I attend an orchestra concert, softball game, or swim meet there I am usually hungry when I head home. I do enjoy eating at Sérénité or 111 Bistro, but lately Santosuosso has been my later-in-the-night stop. I enjoy their Meatball and Sausage Casserole a lot, but the side salad that comes with the meal is the main draw for me. I order it with the Italian house salad dressing, and it comes with the perfect balance of dressing, lettuce, cheese and side veggies (cucumber, tomato and chickpeas). For some reason it tastes better than any other side salad I’ve been served.

One of my friends discovered Mama Marie’s Ukrainian Kitchen in Parma, and we have all been checking it out. It is located next to State Meats on Ridge, and is super-tiny. There are three booths where only two of them can be occupied at the same time as well as two small two-tops. Most of their business is carry out. I enjoyed the most delicious and humongous Kielbasa Sandwich there. It is served on a perfectly soft bun on a bed of sauerkraut. I enjoyed every single bite. The pierogis were quite good too!

We said goodbye to Marta’s in Euclid in September 2019. I was unable to order my favorite Svickova then, but I got to enjoy it in March. The Wienerschnitzel and Czech bread dumplings were a great second choice in September. I’m going to miss those bread dumplings!

2019 was the year I fell in love with Mama Catena Vino e Cucina (also in Euclid). I found it after searching for somewhere close to eat after an event at the public library. They were vote Best Sinful Dessert in 2018, and I recognized the dining room from the video as soon as I stepped into the restaurant. The amazing cannoli cake features two layers of vanilla cake, one layer of chocolate cake, and tons of cannoli filling and crushed cannoli shells. I ordered it for a friend’s birthday when the dining group had dinner there. Everyone loved it – including me and I don’t like usually like cannolis. In fact, I loved it so much that I then ordered it to bring to my birthday party at Corleone’s in August. It was a HUGE hit. You have to pre-order it, but you can pre-order single servings if you are dining there and can plan ahead. I also recommend their Sunday Sauce, which is served with a meatball, slice of sausage and pork that is falling apart because it’s been simmering in marinara sauce for hours! This family-run business treated me like family after the second time I walked in. It has turned into one of my favorite restaurants in town.

My Friday nights and Saturday mornings in Lent were booked with fish fries and pancake breakfasts. The fish fries and pancake breakfasts were hit or miss. You can read all about them in the blog. My favorite fish fry was at St. Andrew’s in Parma, and my favorite pancake breakfast was in Burton at the high school (they served omelettes along with the AYCE pancakes). Some girlfriends and I did a paczki crawl one Sunday after a bad pancake breakfast on the West Side. We started by comparing Biagio’s and Seven Roses’, which I had bought the day before, then stopped at Becker’s (unfortunately there were no paczki that day), Chuppa’s, and Colozza’s. Chuppa’s had a banana custard paczki that I adored; however, my favorite paczkis remain Michael Angelo’s and Rudy’s Strudel. Rudy’s Hough Bakery paczki is absolutely amazing, and just FYI Rudy’s also serves savory paczki – I heated mine up in my air fryer at 360 for 5 minutes.

A must for me is Sokolowski’s clam bake in October. Every Saturday in October from 4-9 they serve a clam bake with either a 1/2 chicken or 12 oz strip steak as well as a ton of other really tempting menu choices. Since it was a spontaneous decision and I hadn’t preordered I was afraid they would run out by the time I made it to the counter because the line was long (it started outside the back door and threaded its way through the dining room), but luckily they had one. (Plan B would have been to just cobble something together from the chowder, appetizer order of clams, and a kielbasa meal.) Their New England Clam Chowder was my favorite part of the meal this year. It was creamy and delicious with lots of chopped clams and big chunks of bacon. The red-skin potatoes were creamy and perfectly cooked as well. I need to get back here to enjoy the chowder again soon. I hope they don’t just serve this during the clam bake season. But I have to mention that normally I ignore the clam broth at clam bakes. I am so glad I didn’t ignore the clam broth here. It was buttery and flavorful, and it was my second favorite part of the meal – and that’s saying something since I ordered a strip steak and clams!

Gunselman’s Tavern serves a burger of the month. December’s burger was the Christmas Dinner, featuring a 1/2 lb burger patty from the West Side Market, shaved (thick shaved!) prime rib, horseradish aioli, rosemary au jus, arugula and tomato on a weck bun. My friend and I split one the first time I went (with onion rings instead of fries), and I went back a week later for lunch to enjoy it again. It is without a doubt the best burger I have ever eaten, edging out the burger at Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers on Mamalahoa Hwy. in Kealakekua, Hawaii.

Le Petit Triangle’s Raspberry and Mango French toast made with challah was not only a feast for the eyes – it was also a feast for the tummy. I can’t even begin to describe had delectable this was. I enjoyed every single bite. I went to brunch there with a friend, and she ordered this and gave me a taste. I went back a couple days later to order my own and enjoyed it on the patio with a good book. In fact, this might have been the best thing I’ve eaten all year.

P.S. It isn’t in Cleveland, but deserves a mention because it ranks as one of my favorite French onion soups of all-time. I was in Palm Springs for a conference in October and enjoyed a French onion soup at Pomme Frite French & Belgian Cuisine that was covered in so much melty cheese that it was served with a pair of scissors. Now *that* is my kind of soup! If you find yourself in Palm Springs be sure to check it out!

I look forward to what 2020 will bring! Happy New Year!

Sawyer’s

Sawyer’s just opened in the new Van Aken District in Shaker Heights. I met a friend who is moving from Cleveland there on Sunday night. Street parking is a little tricky, but the parking garage is just across the street from the front door. There were not a lot of handicapped parking spaces as far as I could see. I parked on the street around the corner, while my friend parked in the parking garage. Her husband, who has mobility issues, did not join us that night. He is why I always consider parking issues when planning events, but crossing the street is easily doable.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer (James Beard Award winner, 2015 Great Lakes Region) is known for his love of local agriculture and sustainable businesses. I’ve always admired his dedication to reusing and recycling when he built The Greenhouse Tavern, his flagship restaurant that is still open on E. 4th and still has rabid fans. I miss Trentina a lot. I had the pleasure of enjoying the Menu Blanco there once, and it remains a lifetime highlight meal to this day.

“Now, that’s a knife!” steak knife

Sawyer’s newest restaurant, Sawyer’s, is light, bright and contemporary, with a white-washed industrial feel. My main complaint about Noodlecat was the uncomfortable seats. That is not the case here! The blue chairs against the beige-upholstered benches are really comfortable and add a pop of blue. The green plants everywhere are also a great addition and intersperse the white surroundings with pops of green. As the Scene magazine explained in an article before it opened, “Sawyer’s will be a step up in terms of price, polish and presentation – a grown-up version of Greenhouse Tavern.” The menu features “wood-fired cooking” (with several heavy-hitting wood-fired ovens) and offers nods to several of his restaurants.

Once sat we were offered still or sparkling water. I chose sparkling, which my friend who does not like still table water in restaurants happily shared with me. The water is served in recycled glass containers of 5x distilled sparkling or still water.

My friend and I had to get the beef tallow candle and wood-fired pita bread as a starter. That candle was revolutionary to me back when Trentina opened. It was made of aged beef suet, edible 24k gold leaf, honey and crunch saltwhich melted into a dipping sauce for the crusty baguette that was brought out later in the meal. In this version, I doubt it has 24k gold leaf in it, but it was still a delightful beef suet that was perfectly seasoned and melted into a dipping sauce for the wood-fired pita. We shared the one piece of pita, but I also took remains of the candle home to heat up later. I imagine if you have a couple people they would gladly provide enough bread for everyone. Even if you had to pay for the extra bread it would be worth it, the bread was fluffy and puffy and perfect.

I was pleased to see a few other Trentina favorites on the menu, such as the Strangolapreti  (which was served with cabbage sauce, grated egg, smoked bottarga, stinging nettles, bergamot orange, ash and olive oil and was one of my favorite bites of the tasting menu – this appetizer version features stuffed bread gnocchi with robiola cheese and Ohio beef brisket) and Trentina Salad. The menu also has a crispy confit of chicken wings, with wings being the huge favorite on the Greenhouse Tavern menu. There’s also a burger and brick chicken that I seem to remember from the Greenhouse Tavern menu. Obviously with a completely new take on things.

I could not decide between a few oysters off the Raw Bar section or the French onion soup (it was a cold night), so I decided to order both. At $3 each or by the dozen for $30, I could pick and choose however many I wanted. I ordered two – one from the East coast and one from the West. The oysters were pristine and served with a range of add-on sauces, including mignonette sauce (a condiment made of minced shallots, cracked pepper and vinegar), a light hot sauce, and a lemon wedge. I preferred the oyster from the West coast, because it reminded me of the salty, briny Jersey ocean of my childhood summers. The East coast oyster was smaller and lighter in taste, not as “fishy.” I can’t wait to go back and order a plate of them and scheduled a dinner for a couple weeks from now with my dining out group.

When we ordered the French onion soup, our server explained to us that since it is wood-fired it was less soupy and more like a concentrated fork-friendly stew of caramelized onions topped with a round of bread and gruyere cheese. This soup was unbelievably delicious. We both ordered it and were thrilled with it. The flavors were zingy and beefy, yet the dish itself was quite comforting. The cheese wasn’t as gooey as I prefer French onion soup to be (I recently enjoyed one in Palm Springs where the cheese was so thick it was served with a pair of scissors to cut it!), but this wasn’t really a soup so I didn’t mind it. It is hard to describe the soup, but if you like the French onion flavor palate you need to try this.

I had trouble deciding on an entree. I ended up ordering the Bistro Steak Frites, which featured a picanha strip loin and Sawyer’s amazing duck fat fries. He got his start here in Cleveland at Bar Cento, and the man can still make a delicious, tantalizing rosemary-infused duck fat fry. I didn’t need a dipping sauce for them because they were that delicious, but it would have been a nice little plus. The beef was served on a bed of pureed root vegetable and topped with a chimichurri sauce. I would order it again in a heartbeat. You can also get a Filet for $50 or a 48 oz dry aged Porterhouse for $101. Both entrees sounded amazing. Life goals.

However, my friend’s lamb special, which was roasted lamb served with hummus and black and green olives, was even better than my entree (which I didn’t think was possible). The lamb was roasted perfectly and had such an amazing flavor. I savored my two bites she gave me. And am tempted to go back before my dining group’s dinner to enjoy it again.

I usually like to visit a restaurant twice to allow for any missteps – especially if a restaurant has just recently opened. Sawyer’s had its soft opening the last week of October. But Sawyer’s knocked it out of the park on this visit and deserves praise for this one visit alone. It is worth the drive to Shaker Heights. Trust me.

Edit: Went again tonight. I had the Fifth Quarter, which tonight was a pappardelle with venison and mushrooms. It was good, but the pappardelle were undercooked. The fried chicken and “pork chop” were both amazing. We also ordered desserts – I highly recommend the s’more. The banana bread pudding and maple bacon creme brulee were also quite nice. Save your money on the apple tartlet.

But be sure to make a reservation. (https://www.opentable.com/r/sawyers-shaker-heights) Right now Sawyer’s is dinner-only Wednesday through Sunday. Weekend brunch and weekday lunch will be added down the road. The restaurant seats 90 and they could accommodate us as walk-ins on Sunday night, but I can’t imagine the place not being packed most nights.

Contact info:

Sawyer’s Restaurant
3396 Tuttle Road
Shaker Heights, Ohio 44122
(216) 860-1236

Omizu Sushi

Omizu Sushi on Ridge Road – not to be confused with Mizu Sushi on Brookpark Road – has earned its spot on my short list of favorite sushi places in Cleveland. It is tucked away in an unassuming strip mall with a Save-A-Lot and a Master Pizza. This place should be more packed than it is. It seems people flock to Mizu on Brookpark Road for their happy hour, but they are seriously missing out on some artistic and delicious sushi at Omizu. Omizu has a happy hour too. It just isn’t as well known.

I stumbled on it when I was looking for a place close to the Parma-Snow library to grab a bite after an author book talk and signing. I love the wall of water and fake fish that divides the dining area from the bar and sushi bar. I saw a lychee martini on the menu and haven’t looked back. The lychee martini is really nice and refreshing, with a lychee garnish.

I decided to order a miso soup and a couple of sushi rolls. The miso soup was decent. It’s nothing to write home about, but the broth is flavorful and they don’t cheap out on the tofu chunks. I just wish there was more seaweed in it.

I ordered two specialty rolls and a couple nigiri. The salmon and tuna nigiri were a delight. The fish was fresh, and the rice was perfect. It didn’t fall apart and had a nice flavor to it. I was not all that impressed with the “Yummy Roll.” It was supposed to have mango in it, but there wasn’t enough to notice. On the other hand, the Monkey Roll was out of this world. The Monkey Roll is topped with tempura banana. I was a little nervous ordering it, but it ended up being my favorite thing. The sweetness of the banana played off the fish and eel sauce nicely. It may not sound that great, but if you like banana trust me. You will love it. I suggest ordering it closer to the end of the meal as a dessert roll.

The next time I went I met a group of people for dinner. We all ordered a roll or two and passed them around, so we got to try a little of everything. Some of us also ordered some appetizers. I ordered the sushi appetizer, and my friend ordered the soft shell crab. Another friend ordered the pickled mackerel, which pairs well with a martini. I loved the soft shell crab the best and would order it again. My friends make fun of me for my unintentionally phallic photos. They ribbed me once again for the sushi appetizer. My friend had posted a photo to Facebook, and they automatically asked if that appetizer was mine. No fair! I chose the Snow Mountain Roll that night in addition to the Monkey Roll. I loved the Snow Mountain Roll, so keep that in mind if you are trying to choose. But the entree that blew us all away that time was the sushimi boat for two. Since one of my friends is diabetic he tends to stay away from rice if he can. The sushimi boat was absolutely stunning. They really do a great job with presentation here.

The third time it was just me and a book. I was craving sushi and made a special drive to Omizu. I changed things up a bit and ordered the Mango Martini, which was also light and refreshing. Usually mango drinks can taste too unnatural. Not this one. I loved it. I was really hungry, so I ordered a vegetable tempura appetizer and a sushi and sashimi platter. The tempura vegetables were not too greasy and actually had a nice taste to them.  I usually find tempura to be too bland. The sashimi and nigiri were pristine, and the California roll was rolled tightly. I took half of everything home and had a nice breakfast the next day.

I hope Omizu is around for a long time so we can keep enjoying its delicious offerings. They have a ton of interesting-sounding rolls to choose from as well as tempura, hibachi and other Japanese entrees. I also look forward to trying their ramen. They have a huge range of choices.

Contact info:

Omizu Japanese Restaurant
6843 Ridge Road
Parma, OH 44129
(440) 340-0888

Polpetta

Polpetta is the brain child of restauranteurs Brian Okin and Adam Bostwick of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti: A Social Kitchen fame. I have had some amazing meals from these two chefs. They closed the two popular restaurants to focus on the Polpetta concept, which relies heavily on the theme of “balls.” The decor is heavy on old meat grinders, which are used as the door handle and light fixtures, and artwork with cleverly-hidden balls in them.

They launched the Polpetta concept at Porco when Walter Hyde was cooking in the tiny kitchen there. That was where I had my first taste of Sunday Supper, which I personally think is the best spaghetti and meatballs I have had in Cleveland. Usually restaurant spaghetti and meatballs are bland, but the meatballs here are well-seasoned and paired with a herbaceous pomodoro red sauce. The pasta was al dente and easy to twirl. When I told my server that I think they are the best spaghetti and meatballs in Cleveland he told me about a woman from Little Italy who came in and was vocally critical of everything, but once she had the Sunday Supper she was quiet and said she would be back. He said she’s been back at least seven times. I agree, Nonna.

Porco version

Polpetta version

Once they opened their restaurant on Detroit Road in Rocky River it was on my list of places to try, but it took a while to make my way over there. I finally met a group of friends there for a nice meal, and that night I accidentally ordered what I think is the best thing on the menu, the Spinach and Meatball Dip. It features mini-meatballs in a spinach-parmesan-roasted tomatoes bechamel sauce and fun little pita dippers. This dip is Chef Adam at his best. It is rich and lush, and I could have eaten the whole thing by myself and regretted it. Everyone at the table adored it, and we practically licked the serving plate clean.

I was less impressed by my entree choice that evening. I ordered The Adam, which features chicken meatballs, Thai peanut sauce, and fried rice. I love Adam’s fried rice, which I first enjoyed as spam fried rice at a pop-up at Toast several years ago. It was then included on the menu at Graffiti, and I happily ordered it several times. Unfortunately the Thai peanut sauce was too bitter that night. I was expecting a nice, creamy Thai peanut sauce, and I think it had too much hot sauce in it that night. My friend Nancy loves his Thai peanut sauce, so apparently it was an anomaly. Luckily I had eaten a ton of the appetizer, so I didn’t go away hungry. But I knew they could do better based on past experience.

I left wishing I had ordered the Grandma Bos, which is a chicken paprikash featuring chicken meatballs, paprikash sauce, and herbed spaetzle. When I ordered it the server asked if I wanted sour cream on top. Yes, please. This was a satisfying dish. The chicken meatballs were nicely seasoned, albeit a little denser than I had hoped. Overall the meatballs here are very dense, but at least they won’t fall apart. The herbed spaetzle are not the traditional (i.e., bland) German spätzle I am used to, but I liked the herb flavor profile and the pan-fried crispiness held up well against the paprikash sauce. I would order this again and again. If you like paprikash you will like this dish.

I ordered the Cereal Balls for dessert, which are made from several different cereals molded into rice krispie-like balls served with milk panna cotta and fresh berries and bananas. I first enjoyed Adam’s panna cotta at a grill evening on the Graffiti patio, so I was looking forward to that magic being recreated. He used cereal milk for that one, but the Polpetta panna cotta just uses milk so it was not as magical – even though it was tasty.

The OG Fat Kid

If you want a dessert that will bowl you over, order the Fat Kid 3.0, which features fried cookie dough balls, ice cream, chips, candy and fun. I got to taste the OG Fat Kid at a Graffiti Throw Back dinner at Polpetta a couple of months ago. That one was outrageously good and featured french fries, which was a fun pairing with the ice cream and chocolate and nerds. It is definitely a dessert to share though.

Contact info:

Polpetta
19900 Detroit Road
Rocky River, OH 44116
(216) 860-4474

Astoria

Photo from Yelp user Norton W.

Astoria Cafe and Market opened back in December 2016 and has been receiving rave reviews ever since. Astoria is located in a 5,000-square-foot space in Gordon Square across from Minh Ahn. Parking is available along the street, but there is also a lot down the side street next to Astoria. The lot is well-lit. I was still somewhat nervous walking back to my car by myself until I realized the parking lot had a guard sitting in his car and keeping watch.

Astoria is a hot brunch location, but is also known for its octopus and tapas. One of my friends swears by the octopus and the mussels. Brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. The menu changes frequently with the season.  There is a bar-restaurant on one side and a market that specializes in cheeses, meats and Mediterranean imports on the other. Anything you purchase in the market can be eaten in the restaurant, which is why they are also known for their charcuterie and cheese boards. I was finally prompted to check it out when I learned that one of my friends is one of the co-owners’ sister, and he serves the family recipe Dolmades or stuffed grape leaves (spoiler alert: they are amazing).

I knew we had to order the octopus (Octopus alla Karvouna) as an appetizer since it is so popular. It features Spanish octopus poached in white wine, lemon and garlic, then charcoal grilled and topped with extra virgin olive oil, cracked black pepper and fresh oregano.  It is indeed as good as everyone says. Maybe even better than I expected it to be. It was a single tentacle that was perfectly grilled, and everyone loved it. So much so that we went back a couple of months later to enjoy it again. We also couldn’t get enough of the complementary fresh bread and probably went through three refills of bread and one refill of the dipping oil.

Our first visit was in the winter right before Christmas, and it was a cold, wet and slushy day. I started my meal off with a bowl of Chicken Avgolemono soup. Avgolemono soup is a Greek specialty using egg yolk and lemon juice. This version features poached free-range chicken in a broth featuring dill, parsley, lemon and golden rice. The lemon and fresh herbs gave it a nice bright flavor, and the chicken was nicely shredded. It was hearty yet light enough to whet my appetite for more.

When I saw Quattro Stagioni pizza on the menu I almost started crying. It is rare to find this Italian staple pizza on menus here in the U.S. and when they do they tend to just put all the toppings on the pizza in a jumble. A true Italian Quattro Stagioni features four sections with diverse ingredients, with each section representing one season of the year —traditionally Parma ham or olives (winter), artichoke hearts (spring), tomato & basil (summer), and mushrooms (fall). This pizza was done the right way, even if it was missing the tomato & basil and featured both Prosciutto di Parma and Kalamata olives. At least they tried. I just found the dough a little too thick for my liking.

Another friend ordered the Quattro Formaggi (four cheese) pizza with mozzarella, pecorino romano, herbed ricotta and asiago cheese. He liked it a lot. Since he is a man of few words that is all I can say about that.

He shared that with his wife, who ordered the Veal, Lamb & Ricotta Meatballs. In fact, two of my friends ordered it that visit and both raved about it. The meatballs are served over fusilli pasta. I had a bite and the sauce was a very flavorful sauce. The meatballs were not overpowering. I apologize for the blurry photo.

One of my friends, who is a notoriously picky eater, ordered the duck confit and mac n cheese. She originally ordered it for the mac n cheese, but fell in love with the whole dish. So much so that when we went back to celebrate some friends’ birthdays she ordered it again.

I finished off the night with a slice of Greek cake (Milopita). It was an apply/custardy slice of goodness. Almost like an apple bread pudding. It was really, really nice.

When we went back a few months later I decided to order a bunch of smaller plates for my meal. I started with the dolmades, which were as amazing as I thought they would be. The rice was tender and flavorful, and the grape leaf was not tough and chewy like some others I have had from a Greek restaurant near me. They were also vegetarian with no meat, which I really enjoyed. I love these dolmades and would probably go back just to get them again. We shared the octopus again, but I also ordered a grilled octopus and lump crab meat salad. It was lightly dressed in a mayo and lots of lemon. It was very refreshing. I also ordered a side of herbed golden rice, because I wanted something small but warm to balance my cold plates.

I was lucky enough to try a bit of the chicken souvlaki, which was really great too. It was served over a bed of greens that were lightly dressed in a nice sauce and accompanied by some hummus, tzatziki and pita bread. My friend loved this.

I finished off the night that time with a trio of cannoli. I am not normally a fan of cannoli, but I would order Astoria’s cannoli again. The mini-cannoli were filled with a pistachio filling a chocolate filling, and a Luxardo cherry filling. They had me at Luxardo, but the other two were amazing as well. I shared them with my dining companions, and they also enjoyed them.

Contact info:

Astoria Cafe & Market
5417 Detroit Ave
Cleveland, OH 44102
(216) 266-0834

Mama Catena Vino e’ Cucina

I live at the top of the hill into Little Italy, but I gladly drive to Euclid to eat at Mama Catena Vino e’ Cucina. I discovered it recently while at the Euclid Library for an event. I left hungry and searched for some place nearby. I am so glad I chose it. As soon as I walked in I remembered having seen a video of them receiving an award for Best Sinful Dessert in Cleveland, so I immediately knew I was going to be in good hands. Established in 1989, it was closed for a while after a mechanical fire and has recently reopened.

This family-owned and operated gem has a lot going for it. Everything is homemade – from the bread to the pasta. The bread is an adaptation of the pizza dough and is fired as a flatbread that is cut in half and topped with a light garlic butter and pepper. I actually wish the bread was more substantial, but it is at least plentiful. They are willing to keep bringing out more and more.

I first want to note that I love their presentations. The wood planks that serve the bread and the funky, off-kilter bowls that the soup, salad and pasta come in are just whimsical and fun.

The house soup is their lasagna soup. I haven’t had a chance to try it, because I don’t want to overload on tomato sauce when I’m there but I will soon. I have tried one of their soups of the day. The soup that day was “chicken soup,” and it was a delightful soup that was reminiscent of Italian wedding without the meatballs and tons of escarole. There were some greens and tiny pasta balls. I had to add just a bit of salt and pepper to it to liven it up to my liking, but I happily finished it.

The side salad with house Italian dressing always hits the spot. It is dressed with the perfect amount of dressing – not too little, not too much – and topped with shredded cheese, cherry tomato halves, cucumber slices and a couple pepperoni. I got to have my vegetarian friends’ pepperoni last time. So if you are a vegetarian, be forewarned to order with no pepperoni.

They have house pasta specialties such as lasagna, involtini, and pepe e cacio, various meat and vegetarian entrees, focaccia stuffed sandwiches, pizza and calzones as well as Pasta Your Way. Regular pasta (spaghettini, capellini, penne, rigatoni, ziti tagliati, and fettuccini) is a base rate of $10, cavatelli and gnocchi are $11, stuffed pasta (meat, cheese or spinach ravioli and stuffed shells) is $12, bucatini, spaghetti chitarra and and “gigli toscana” are $12.50, and whole wheat pasta and gluten-free penne are $14. Pappadelle, burrata ravioli, and lobster ravioli are $14. They offer twelve different pasta sauces – marinara, carbonara, meat sauce, pomodoro, alfredo, “rosella” (a blend of their marinara and alfredo), piccata (lemon butter), marsala, aglio e olio, pesto, putanesca, and salsa a vongoli (baby clams slow cooked in either creamy alfredo, marinara, or oil and garlic). The pesto, carbonara, putanesca, pomodoro, alfredo, rosella, salsa a vongoli have an upcharge of $3 and the other sauces (except marinara) have an upcharge of $2. You can also add on various meats, seafood and veggies for  $2.50-$3.50 depending on the addition.

I had a bite of my friend’s gnocchi in the rosella sauce, and it was right up there with Trattoria’s gnocchi, which has been my gold star standard for years. The gnocchi were light, and the rosella sauce complemented it well. Another friend ordered the gnocchi with the putanesca sauce. She was also very pleased with her selection.

The first time I ate here the Sunday Sauce called to me, and I simply can’t break away from ordering it. Sunday Sauce is what every Italian I know makes – call it sauce or gravy, it is simmered for a long time with pork neck and/or back, sausage and meatballs or even braciole. I order it every time I go and just vary the pasta. The Sunday Sauce is a delicious tomato sauce that comes with an Italian sausage, a meatball and some pork. For $20 it is generous enough for leftovers every time.

Unfortunately another friend was less thrilled with her spaghetti and meatballs and sent it back. The noodles were overcooked, and she didn’t like the sauce at all (I think she had ordered the pomodoro sauce). We were a big table and it took forever to get our meals that night, so it might have been a blip. Although, she is Italian, so why she didn’t order the Sunday Sauce is beyond me.

They are known for their Involtini pasta, which is ricotta cheese-filled pasta rolled into a log then cut into large pin wheels. I ordered it the second time I ate here – with the Sunday Sauce. It was almost too rich and decadent.

The pizza at the table next to me the other day looked delicious, and I was almost tempted to order one. One of the employees walked the little boy who enjoyed the pizza into the back to see the pizza oven. It’s a nice, family-friendly touch. Because when you are here you are treated like part of the family. I’m not even kidding.

We celebrated one of my friend’s birthdays here and I knew we had to order the cannoli cake. It is two layers of vanilla cake, a layer of chocolate cake and tons of layers of cannoli filling, coffee liqueur, as well as crushed cannoli shells that are dipped in chocolate and a chocolate ganache. This cake is the BOMB. I am not exaggerating that it is probably the best dessert I have ever had – and I don’t like cannoli! It is light and ethereal – not dense at all. Simply heavenly. A small cake runs $40 and easily fed eight of us and yielded eight generous slices to take home as well. You can also order this cake for one person – just call ahead and order it.

They have an excellent wine list, and I can recommend the limoncello cocktail and Venetian Spritz!

Contact info:

Mama Catena Vino e’ Cucina
711 Babbitt Road
Euclid, OH 44123
(216) 261-1168

Burton-Middlefield American Legion Pancake Breakfast

I like this pancake breakfast because they serve some delicious potatoes and they don’t limit the o.j. Most pancake breakfasts in Burton have closed up shop for the season, but this one is still going strong. They were serving from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Next week is the last week until next year. I rolled up at 11:30, and the parking lot was pretty empty. Needless to say there was no line, but they advertise there is no waiting. They have seating upstairs for large groups.

I walked in and paid my $10 to the man at the cash table. He gave me a ticket, which I turned into the kitchen window in exchange for my choice of blueberry or regular pancakes, sausage patties, potatoes and scrambled egg. They were serving them out of metal serving platters.

I deposited my stuff at a table and went to collect some plasticware, coffee and orange juice. They have the coolest drip collectors on the coffee urns that they made from two-liter bottles. They have hot water, regular coffee and decaf coffee equipped with those bad boys. I think that is pretty ingenious.

The tables had paper placemats set and squeeze bottles of maple syrup that they regularly replaced. There were also small bottle of ketchup for those who like ketchup on their eggs or potatoes. A large catch-all table had a bottle of sugar-free syrup and a couple other alternatives like agave as well as butter for the pancakes.

I doctored up my coffee with cream and sugar at the table and then dug into the meal. I had chosen one regular and one blueberry pancake and two sausage patties. I enjoyed both of them, but preferred the blueberry pancake enough to get one more when I went to get a little bit more later. It was a little moister from the addition of the fresh and plentiful blueberries. The eggs were well cooked like I prefer them (if you like runny eggs you might be disappointed). There were a couple dollops of egg that were dried out and dark yellow, but I just didn’t eat them. The potatoes have an onion flavor to them that makes them unique. Round two was a blueberry pancake, a sausage patty and a scoop of potatoes and a second cup of orange juice. I barely finished round two.

I rolled out of there shortly after noon and had definitely hit my satiation limit. I drove home with the windows down and enjoyed the warm weather. What a difference a week makes. Last week the trees were covered in snow and I slept with my window open all night last night.

Next week they will be serving biscuits and sausage gravy (probably to get rid of all the extra sausage).

Contact info:

Burton-Middlefield American Legion
14052 Goodwin Street
Burton, OH 44021
(440) 834-8621