Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Old School Italian Cuisine At Chinato

When I first heard that Zack Bruell was opening up an upscale dining Italian restaurant on the East 4th street venue in downtown Cleveland, I was intrigued. Having eaten several delicious meals at his French brasserie L'Albatros in University Circle, I was very much looking forward to not only checking out this relatively new eatery, but also sharing it with several friends who happened to be in town for the weekend. While it turned out that only one of my two friends was able to make it tonight, the meal we shared amazed us both. But I'll get to more of that later.

Chinato was located at 2079 East 4th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115 and can be reached at 216-298-9080. While you can certainly call for reservations, I took advantage of the OpenTable application for Android on my HTC Incredible to make my reservations. Finding the menu link on Chinato's website can be a little confusing, but it happens to be along the top part of the loaded page. Finding a close parking spot to the East 4th venues can be a little tricky, so I just opted to pay the $8 valet charge at the lot next to Lola Bistro.

Finding Chinato's front entrance was our first task. While the outer windows were lightly stenciled, there was no obvious signage for the restaurant. I've heard that this was done on purpose to give it a more clandestine feel, but the easiest way to find the front entrance was to go to the corner of E. 4th and Prospect, turn away from Flannery's and you'll be facing the front entrance:

Tonight, being a gorgeous sunny day in the low 70's, we could've opted for dining al fresco on the limited patio; instead, we opted for a table inside. After being seated, we were handed the menu:

The menu was only a single page, but it was large. If you spend some time looking at the menu on-line, you'll realize that there was quite a bit of choice in each category. Deciding that I didn't want to provide you with ten photographs just of the menu, I only took the one of the cover and will leave it to you, gentle reader, to investigate the website further. It is worth noting that the menu on the website matched the one handed to us in the restaurant.

Shortly after being seated, a server came around with a large basket of pre-sliced bread and placed two slices of bread on each of our plates:

Along with the bread, a saucer of extra virgin olive oil and pink sea salt were also provided:

While the bread was served room temperature, it was both fresh and tasty. Clearly an artisanal bread, the crust was chewy and toothsome and the crumb had just the slightest amount of pull to it. I tasted the bread by itself and with the oil and it was delicious both way. The olive oil had a wonderful peppery flavor to it that really stood up on its own against the darkly caramelized crust.

One of the selling great points of Chinato's menu was that it was designed for lots of small tastes, which was exactly what Chris and I decided to do tonight. We each decided to order a dish from the Crudo / Antipasti section and one of the small plates from the Pasta section.

As soon as Chris saw Suppli al telefono on the menu, he immediately knew which Antipasti he wanted. Apparently, in the mindset of a traditional Italian cook, nothing goes to waste. Suppli are little balls made from the previous day's risotto that have been stuffed with a little bit of cheese, breaded and deep fried to a golden brown. The "al telefono" refers to the fact that traditionally, the cheese inside the little balls was of the stringy variety, such as mozzarella, so that when cut into and pulled apart, the cheese stretched into long strands.

Here was the bowl of suppli that showed up at our table:

Once I portioned my plate, I cut into one of the fried balls to reveal the creamy cheese center:

Dusted with a bit of grated aged cheese and sprinkled with some chopped parsley, these little rice and cheese balls were absolutely delicious. Perfectly crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, they were a nice textural contrast from one bite to the next. While I would've been completely happy eating them sans sauce, apparently they were being served with a cup of red sauce on the side:

While it looked like a basic marinara sauce, when Chris and I tasted this by itself, the one conclusion that we both came to was seafood. It had a decidedly briny flavor to it. Perhaps Chinato is adding clam broth to its red sauce, although I can't claim this for a fact since I didn't ask. By itself and paired with a bit of the bread provided to us, we both liked the sauce. In fact, this would've gone great with either plain pasta or perhaps served as the base for a red clam sauce. Paired with the suppli, however, it didn't seem to work very harmoniously. The seafood flavor tended to cover up the more delicate taste of the fried risotto balls.

The antipasti that I picked was the Burrata with Grilled Bread and Cold Basil Tomato Sauce:

Here was a shot of the burrata dish after Chris had scooped out a portion for himself:

And here was a shot of my portion of creamy cheese, basil tomato sauce, and a grilled bread stick:

Burrata, in case you are unfamiliar, gentle reader, is very similar to fresh mozzarella. In fact it is fresh mozzarella in which additional cream has been added. The cream gave the cheese an incredibly rich depth of flavor. What surprised both of us was that despite the addition of the cream, the dish was surprisingly light on the tongue. Certainly the acid of the tomatoes helped to cut through some of that fat, but both of us felt like this would've made a fantastic summer dish. To say that this dish was a winner was an understatement. We greedily devoured the entire dish and then went back to our reserved bread to finish cleaning out as much of the dish that the burrata had come in as possible.

Our appetizers now finished, our server cleared our table in preparation for the first of our two pasta offerings. After looking over the menu, the one pasta dish that really stuck out for me was the Fusilli with tongue, oxtail, and red wine:

The tongue and oxtail had clearly been braised low and slow, cooking for many hours and the meat had been shredded and served as the condiment to fusilli pasta. Topping it was a bit of ricotta-style cheese that was itself topped with shaved planks of Parmigiano Reggiano. For those who are scared of trying this dish because of the tongue, I have two things to say to you. First, both meats had been expertly braised and as such, if you didn't know there was beef tongue in this, you would never have even suspected it. Second, order this dish even if you are scared of it. It was incredibly delicious and tasty and really goes to show just how good Italian cuisine can be when done well. The meat was tender and juicy, the pasta cooked perfectly, and the bit of ricotta gave each bite just a little bit of creaminess. While I did ask if all of the pasta was homemade and given an affirmative answer, Chris doubted whether the fusilli was truly made in-house. To me, it didn't matter, this was a real winner. I thought that the braised meat might be just a bit aggressively salted, but it certainly wasn't to the point where it was a distraction.

Chris's first pasta choice was the Pappardelle with Creamed Cauliflower, Pecorino, and Peperoncini:

Our server informed us that in fact, there was no cream involved in this dish. Which was impressive because the creamed cauliflower was creamy and thick and had a wonderful mouth feel. I'm not normally a big proponent of cauliflower, but served this way, I would eat it every day. Where Chris had doubted the provenance of the fusilli pasta in the previous dish, clearly the pappardelle noodles were made from scratch. They had a wonderful chewiness to them without being tough and they took up the sauce quite well. The capricious bite of the peperoncini was also a wonderful addition to this dish, enough to make you notice, but not enough to dominate the flavor and ruin the subtle flavor of the cauliflower. Another absolutely outstanding plate of pasta!

With a track record of four winner dishes out of four, Chris and I were at a bit of a crossroad in our meal. He was feeling hungry enough for a full-sized entrée; I wasn't. When I said I was just planning on finishing my meal with a small portion of the gnocchi, he reassessed his hunger level and decided that we would do a repeat of the duo of small plates of pasta. I went ahead and order the Gnocchi with Tomato, Basil, Toasted Garlic, Butter and Parmesan:

While these weren't as ethereally light as the gnocchi I make myself (and actually prefer), these were expertly made and most importantly, you could actually taste the potato in the pasta. So many times, the tender little morsels are heavily leaden in texture and taste nothing of potatoes. The toasted garlic portion of the dish consisted of toasted garlic bread crumbs, which added a nice textural contrast to the slightly chewy gnocchi. The tomato added acid, the basil herbaceousness, and the Parmesan cheese salt. While I am a big fan of butter, you won't be disappointed if you like your gnocchi swimming in it. As much as Paula Dean might disagree with me, there can be such a thing as too much butter. While Chris and I both felt that the gnocchi weren't quite as good as the fusilli and the pappardelle, we both agreed that it was still pretty darn tasty.

The fourth and final pasta dish we decided to order was the Risotto with Yellow Peppers and Speck:

The risotto came out with the perfect sauce-like consistency. It was creamy and spoonable, but wasn't swimming in liquid. It was nicely seasoned and I thought the rice was cooked perfectly. Chris, however, while recognizing that true risotto should have just a bit of toothiness to the rice, thought that it was too gummy and made his teeth squeak when he bit down. An element of the dish that didn't work for either one of us, however, was the speck. The flavor was nice, but because the pieces were so large, you ended up spending far too long trying to break it down while chewing it. Perhaps it would've been better served as a crispy julienned strips on top of the finished risotto garnishing the plate instead of being integrated throughout. Keeping in mind the extreme heights to which our meal had taken us tonight, this dish ranked merely so-so. That being said, had I eaten this risotto at a national chain restaurant, I would've been impressed by the talent of the kitchen staff.

While a dessert menu was presented, both of us were way too stuffed to consider anything else. We ordered our third dining companion who wasn't able to join us a large pasta carbonara to go and with our dinner and his take-out order, the bill came to a very reasonable $75 with tax (we had water with dinner). That's roughly $25 per person plus tip. I commented to Chris as we left that while I used to think that you had to spend far more money per person to get anything of quality, I've come to the realization that expensive doesn't always mean good and inexpensive doesn't always mean bad. I highly recommend you give Chinato a first look if you haven't already and if you have, well by all means, go back for another visit to support this wonderful local Italian eatery.

Chinato on Urbanspoon

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