I write this blog post with bittersweet sentiments. As I was enjoying my visit with my out-of-town friend Mike last weekend, he read aloud from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that a well established Little Italy restaurant, the Baricelli Inn, would be closing its doors on Saturday, July 10th after twenty-five years in operation. Chef and owner Paul Minnillo was quoted in the CPD article as saying that, "After 25 years in business, I think it's just time to close" and "It's just very difficult to succeed in that category today. People just don't eat that way -- lots of courses, and hours at the table -- anymore."
And while I would've agreed with his sentiment perhaps ten years ago, based on my previous visit to the Baricelli last summer, I actually felt like they had evolved into a more modern restaurant. The menu prices were reasonable for the level of food being prepared and served to diners. Of course, if one went nuts on the wine list, the final bill could be expensive, but with most entrées priced in the mid $20's, while it wasn't an every day kind of place, it was certainly in line with other more recent Cleveland upscale eateries like Lola Bistro, Crop Bistro, Parallax, and Moxie. That being said, the last time I had dinner there, the restaurant was eerily empty for a Friday night and I suspect that Chef Minnillo wanted to not only reinvent the menu, but at someplace new that wouldn't weigh him down with tradition that the Baricelli had established for itself.
Word of the closing spread quickly amongst the foodie community and within hours, a group of us decided that we would plan on enjoying one final meal before the doors closed on the 10th. I wouldn't normally write about a restaurant that is no longer open, but in this particular case, I decided to document my last meal at the Baricelli Inn as an homage to the memories I've had there over the past twenty years. Tonight, July 8th, was the date of our gathering and as we arrived, I think more than one of us was filled with happiness, sadness, and nervousness over what was about to transpire.
Before I share tonight's meal with you, gentle reader, I wanted to regale you with one of my favorite Baricelli Inn stories. My first real job out of college was with the big consulting firm Ernst & Young. Based out of the Cleveland office, those were the heady pre-dotcom boom days where staff consultants were billed out at $125+ per hour. Budgets were fairly large back then and most expense reports were approved with little questioning. Of course, if you traveled for business, you could expense dinner. A little known fact, however, was that if you worked ten or more hours in a given day at your home office, you could also expense dinner. Having been itching to try the Baricelli Inn since I had learned of its existence when starting at Case Western, at the end of a particularly long ten hour Monday, an idea popped into my head. I was already dressed in a suit for work. I could expense a meal and no receipt was required for meals under $75. I could probably get a last minute reservation considering Monday was probably not a busy night for the restaurant.
I called and scored a reservation for 7 PM. My next thought was that I didn't want to experience this by myself. So, I called up my friend Chris (the one who now lives in Scranton, PA that I've written about before) and had the following conversation:
"Have you eaten yet?"
"I have some good news and some bad news."
"Okay. What's the good news?"
"We have reservations at the Baricelli Inn in an hour."
"Sweet! What's the bad news?"
"You're going to have to put on a tie and jacket."
Chris, like me, had never had the opportunity to eat at the restaurant either and quickly agreed to my terms. We walked to the restaurant and were promptly seated and shown our menus. I had never ordered with abandon before, not really caring about how much everything would add up to in the end. We went through appetizers, salads, entrées, desserts, two bottles of wine, and of course, cigars and port. Needless to say, we appeared to be celebrating like rock stars. At one point during the meal, I had said the line, "I can't believe its been over a year now," just as the waiter arrived with our appetizers. Now, I was actually referring to something completely different, but I saw him pause for only the briefest of moments as he registered the notion that Chris and I were here to celebrate our anniversary. He further commented when Chris and I ordered cigars and glasses of port at the end of our meal, "Boy, you guys sure know how to celebrate!" Again, there was that slight twinkle in his eye. Chris, whose gaydar was about as finely tuned as a used Yugo, completely missed the references.
When I finally got the check, I was just a little shocked that with tip and tax, the bill came to $366. I will concede that wine, cigars, and port made up more than half of the bill. In the end, it took me an additional four days of working 10+ hours per day to expense the entire dinner ($75 per day, remember?). I actually held on to that receipt for years, a reminder of my introductory meal at a restaurant of that caliber.
As we walked out into the cool night air still smoking our stogies, I decided to revisit the waiter's earlier comments:
"So, um, you DO realize that the waiter thought we were a couple, right?"
"Yeah, remember the comment I made about me not believing it's already been a year? The waiter overheard me saying that as he delivered the appetizers. And his comment at the end of the meal about us going all out to celebrate? Oh, yeah, he totally had us pegged as a couple in a committed relationship."
"But that's not what we were even talking about! Wait. We're not a couple, are we?"
I thought about torturing him for a little bit considering he had just gotten a free (and very expensive) meal, but decided to let him off the hook with a simple, "Um, no."
Ah, good times, good times. So now let's talk about some of the good times I had with dinner tonight.
After being shown to the table and having our server introduce himself to us, we were left to peruse the freshly printed menus for today's dinner service:
I was hoping to score an order of the gnudi (the dish which sent my previous dining companions into uncontrolled fits of laughter), but sadly, the dish was nowhere to be found on the menu and our server confirmed that there were no additional daily specials to consider. While we sat and pondered what to order for this last glorious meal, our drink orders arrived at the table.
Here was my glass of iced tea:
Given how hot it has been over the last week, this was an exceptionally welcome sight and I took a few sips from the frigid liquid to quench my thirst. Along with our round of drinks came the bread service. First up was a dish of extra virgin olive oil:
And a single piece of bread for each diner:
The bread was quite good. It was filled with feta cheese chunks and spicy red pepper flakes. While tasty on its own, it was even better when dipped into the olive oil. The only bad part about tonight's bread service was that no additional bread was offered to guests after the first piece had been eaten. I suppose we could've asked for additional bread, but the gentleman walking around with the bread basket seemed to be few and far between.
Because the Baricelli offers half-sized portions of pasta and given that I had only eaten a small bowl of chicken noodle soup at lunch today, I decided to order an appetizer, a small pasta, and an entrée. It sounds like a lot of food, and normally I wouldn't order that much, but I was quite hungry and considering that this was the last time I would be able to order from their menu, I decided to push the envelop a bit.
While there were several good looking items from the appetizer portion of the menu, when I saw that they were offering bufala mozzarella, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist. Here was a shot of my appetizer when it arrived at the table:
Almost identical to a insalata caprese, the big difference here was that the tomatoes had been replaced with roasted strips of red bell pepper. Dressed with a chiffonade of fresh basil and some extra virgin olive oil, this was heaven on a plate. The difference between this mozzarella and fresh mozzarella you can get in most supermarkets today was that this version was made from Water Buffalo milk and not cow's milk. The texture and taste of the bufala mozzarella was extremely soft and creamy and it almost melted in my mouth. It very much reminded me of the burrata I had enjoyed the week prior at Chinato, but it wasn't quite as creamy. Regardless, I enjoyed every bite, from first to last.
For my petite pasta course I decided to go with the mushroom risotto with shaved fennel salad:
As soon as my server set this down in front of me, the heady aroma of white truffle oil wafted up from the plate and tickled my nose. While the rice was cooked perfectly, there was a surprising lack of creaminess that one normally associates with a risotto. If this risotto had been finished with butter or freshly grated Parmesan cheese, it was a minimal amount. That being said, the flavor was unctuous and earthy, representative of the fact that there were several varieties of wild mushrooms on this plate. The dressed fennel and shallot salad on top offered a nice bit of acid to help cut through the richness of the mushrooms. This was yet another solid dish from the kitchen.
Looking over the list of entrées, I let my heart really speak to what it craved: steak. Here was a shot of the Flat Iron Steak with Mushroom Frittata:
Dressing the plate was a porcini aioli and accompany my entrée tonight was some sautéed spinach and crispy onion straws. Here was a close-up of the steak:
Cooked to the perfect medium-rare that I requested it, the steak was warm and juicy and cut easily with the provided serrated knife. I dipped each bite into a little bit of the porcini aioli and was rewarded with a deeper, richer umami flavor. I've often prepared flank steak before by doing a dry rub that contained ground up dried porcini mushrooms and this flavor was reminiscent of that preparation.
Not to be outdone, at the center of the dish was an unmolded timbale of mushroom frittata:
I knew that this has been properly cooked as the eggs were tender without being too wobbly. While it reinforced the mushroom flavor in the aioli, it was also different enough in flavor that it provided my taste buds a break from the richness of the beef. The sautéed spinach the frittata rested on had a bright, clean spinach flavor and while I grew up as a child who hated this somewhat bitter vegetable, I thoroughly enjoyed tonight's version.
One of my dinner companions who also happened to order the Flat Iron Steak wanted something a little different as a side and when the server told him about the Parmesan French Fries, he quickly agreed:
He was generous enough to share his side and I have to say that these were quite tasty. While these weren't the crispy potato sticks that I normally desire, the flavor from the Parmesan and herbs sprinkled on top more than made up for their lack of crispness.
After such a heavy meal, I wasn't sure I wanted to do dessert, too. But, knowing that this would be my last chance to ever do so again, I opted to push past the slight discomfort. While the dessert menu contained cheeses, ports, dessert wines, and other such accoutrements, I decided to just take a picture of the dessert portion of the menu:
Yes, the choices were pretty limited, but given that they were closing in just two days, I wasn't surprised to see only four desserts listed. The sorbet duo for the event, pineapple and raspberry, weren't really calling my name, so that dessert choice was out. I was feeling in a chocolate mood, so I opted for the warm espresso fudge brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream. Here was what I received shortly after ordering:
First the good. The ice cream and fudge sauce were outstanding. I would've gladly eaten a hot fudge sundae composed of just those two items. The espresso fudge brownie was also nicely moist and warm. However, I didn't particularly taste any of the espresso flavor in the brownie and it had an off-putting grainy texture, almost as if the sugar hadn't fully dissolved in the batter before being baked. Additionally, it was cloyingly sweet. I realize that dessert is supposed to be sweet, but as with all courses, it should also have balance. All that said, it wasn't a bad dessert; it just wasn't up to the level of the rest of the meal.
Our epicurean journey now complete, we paid our respective checks, collected our personal effects, and strolled out into the still nearly 90 degree Fahrenheit evening air. While I am sad to see this Cleveland eatery fade into memory, I am happy to have had the opportunity to have just one more fabulous meal before they shuttered the windows and locked the doors. For those who are fans of Paul Minnillo's cooking, he is planning on partnering with Christopher Di Lisi in order to open up a more affordable restaurant in Moreland Hills called Flour. I'll be the first to admit that I'm curious what kind of menu he will be presenting to replace the high-end cuisine he served for twenty-five years at The Baricelli. From what I've heard, it should be opening up in the fall of 2010.
While I will certainly miss the food and service at the Baricelli, I will always have my wonderful memories of dinners past to entertain and delight me for years to come.