I have had a longstanding relationship with very few restaurants. Along with a handful of others from my childhood such as Parasson's, Marie's, and The Sub Station, Carrie Cerino's Ristorante in North Royalton also occupies one of those spaces. I first started going there after moving to Wadsworth during my eight grade year. My grandfather liked the food, service, and most importantly, the Manhattan's. Throughout high school and college, we would occasionally make the drive for some nice Italian food.
After college, Carrie Cerino's kind of fell off my radar. It wasn't particularly close to where I lived or worked and I could find Italian food as good closer to me. It seems I should have been playing closer attention as the then Executive Chef Dominic Cerino III had begun to make some marvelous changes to the menu. He began to add organic and heritage products as well as locally sourced ingredients. Apparently what was for so long etched into my mind as just another Italian restaurant had suddenly caught the attention of the foodie crowd in Cleveland.
It wasn't until my return to Carrie Cerino's in the fall of 2006 that I witnessed the transformation for myself. Chef Dominic had engineered the menu so that in addition to the traditional pasta with red or white sauce that would appeal to 80% of the clientèle, there were also menu items that were targeted at consumers who were looking for authentic Italian, but using higher quality ingredients.
Then, in early, 2008, it was announced that Chef Dominic had decided to leave Carrie Cerino's to pursue other interests and his brother Carmen, who had been involved with the restaurant but not necessarily in the kitchen, would take over the kitchen brigade and assume the role of Executive Chef. I don't know why, but suddenly it seemed as if the foodie crowd seemed uninterested in returning. I admit that I'm guilty of the same crime, but in my defense, because Carrie Cerino's was so far out of my way, I had usually gone because someone else asked me to join them for dinner.
So tonight, some 2 1/2 years after my last visit, I decided to go by myself and see how the food and menu had evolved. I went early on a Tuesday evening, figuring it would be the optimal time to show up unannounced and get a table; I was correct.
Carrie Cerino's was located at 8922 Ridge Road, North Royalton, OH 44133 and can be reached at 440-237-3434. Their website can be located here. There was a more than ample parking lot outside of the restaurant and lounge.
Here was what the front of the restaurant looked like from the road:
After entering through the main doors, I was greeted with the same long hallway I had walked down so many other times. As I approached the stand located at the entrance to the restaurant, the hostess greeted me, gathered up the menus and escorted me to my table in the back room, where there were only several other parties in various phases of their meals.
I started out by looking at the "Early Bird" menu, something I don't think I had ever had a chance to investigate before at Carrie Cerino's:
While the "Early Bird" menu was interesting because of the reduced prices, I was much more eager to check out the regular menu and see how much of what I remember still remained:
I spent a few minutes photographing and intently studying the menu. In what turned out to be a complete surprise, quite a few of the items that Chef Dominic had added were still on the menu. Ranging from the infamous Blue Egg Ravioli to the Berkshire pork and Copper River Salmon, sure enough it was all there. The only item that the menu seemed to be missing was the salumi board, which had been a collection of house-cured meats as well as a few of Armandino Batali's selections (yes, gentle reader, Armandino is Mario Batali's father).
After listening to my server describe the daily specials, I went about my task on deciding what to order. While the Copper River salmon was available and sounded delicious, at $42 for the King Salmon version, that was just a little too rich for my blood tonight. I ended up choosing one of the daily pasta specials, a Pasta Bolognese. In addition to my pasta, it also came with a choice of soup or salad and a choice between homemade Italian sausage or meatballs. Having forgotten the enormous amount of food you receive at Carrie Cerino's, I somewhat foolishly added a side of the Norcian Lentils, too.
Soon after placing my order, my server dropped off several loaves of homemade bread, one plain, and the other studded with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs. Here was a shot of my bread dish:
Seeing as this was my first taste of the food since 2008, I was impressed that the flavors and textures were exactly as I remembered them. I've never cared all that much for the sun-dried tomato version and sure enough, I didn't care for today's version either. That being said, it also hadn't changed. I paired some of the softened butter from the pats in a dish on the table with the "plain" version and was quite satisfied.
A few moments later, my server dropped my Italian Wedding soup off at the table:
Studded with a lone meatball, chunks of cooked chicken, micro-orbs of egg and long ribbons of greens, the soup was pretty good. I tried the broth first on its own and found it to be a bit salty for my taste, but when I paired the broth with the other ingredients in the soup, it helped to tame the saltiness of the broth. The meatball was tender and had been infused with various herbs which really added to the savoriness of the dish. While this wasn't the best Italian Wedding soup I've ever had (that honor goes to Vaccaro's Trattoria), it was still good.
Having finished my soup, I eagerly anticipated the main course. I didn't have to wait long. Here was a shot of the homemade Italian sausage with marinara sauce:
Besides being a rather hefty portion of sausage, it was grilled quite well and the casing had a nice snap to it. It was moist and tender and the addition of the acidity from the marinara sauce was a nice touch to help cut through the fattiness of the meat. As I began to chew the sausage, the comforting flavor of fennel seeds began to develop and lingered in my mouth after swallowing. The sausage, while not overly spicy, had just a tiny bit of heat that made it interesting.
Next up was my Pasta Bolognese:
The pasta, angelhair to be exact, was homemade and delicious. It had been cooked properly and then sauced two ways. As most good Italian cooks will tell you, the proper way to dress pasta is to cook it almost until done and then transfer it to a pot with the condimento, or sauce, to finish cooking. This allows the pasta to absorb the sauce. The pasta would then be plated, no additional sauce needed. Americans, however, like to have their pasta plain and topped with an inordinate amount of sauce. To me, pasta sauce is like salad dressing: less is more. Clearly from the color of the fresh angelhair, the pasta had been tossed with the sauce, but then after plating, additional sauce had been ladled on top.
Alright, fussing aside, how did it taste? Very, very good. The pasta was tender and cooked perfectly. The sauce, containing large pieces of cooked prosciutto, was creamy, tangy, and salty all at the same time. The only minor criticism besides being oversauced was that I would've loved to have seen a bit of parsley scattered on top, for a little bit of color contrast. At $14 for the soup, sausage, and pasta, this was a real bargain because I took home enough food for at least one additional meal.
Finally, my side of Norcian Lentils:
When Chef Dominic first added this dish to the menu, he cooked them the traditional way which made the lentils VERY al dente. Or as most of his customers would come to call it, a bit too crunchy. He did acquiesce and began cooking them through all the way and today's version mirrored that adjusted dish. The flavors were mostly there, although I missed the addition of the house-cured guanciale that gave Chef Dominic's version a nice spicy kick. The earthiness of the lentils was a nice contrast to the rest of my dinner.
Having eaten probably only a third of my meal, I asked my server to pack up the rest so I could eat it later. As always, the service at Carrie Cerino's was impeccable, but I wanted to actually give a special thanks to the young man who brought me my water and refilled my glass as well as cleared my table. Besides being efficient, he was also quite polite and interacted with me on several occasions during the meal, despite the fact that I wouldn't be tipping him directly. And, in case you were wondering, it wasn't just for me that he performed his tasks so well. He interacted this way with every patron he served.
To Chef Carmen Cerino's credit, the food tonight was as outstanding as it has always been. I was quite surprised to find so much of the menu still bearing the previous chef's signature, but also happy knowing that I can return again, hopefully in a much more timely fashion, and expect to find the same quality that I had tonight and in time's past. I recommend you check out both the traditional and not-so-traditional sides of Carrie Cerino's menu. There is something suitable for every taste.