To say that opening a restaurant is a stressful endeavor would be an understatement. There are so many factors that can make or break a restaurateur's efforts that if you stopped to consider them all, you just might find yourself balled up in the corner of the room in the fetal position, whimpering for your mommy. When I found out that Louis Prpich, chef and owner of the successful Chowder House Cafe in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, had decided to open a second restaurant (not a second location, but a completely separate restaurant) called Sugo Modern Italian Bistro, I wasn't sure if he was simply overly ambitious or possibly a little mad. Quite possibly, a little of both.
The first problem, as it turned out, was finding the restaurant. While I knew it was housed at the same location as the old Cuyahoga Falls stalwart DiLullo's, for those not from the area, that would mean nothing. Although Sugo does have a website, it hadn't risen far enough in the Google pagerank system to show up in a simple "sugo bistro cuyahoga falls" search. Sadly, what did show up at the top of the results was a piece from the Cuyahoga Falls Patch. Sad, not because this local rag showed up and Sugo did not, but because the address listed for the restaurant had been taken from the home page of Sugo's website and was incorrect.
I knew sort of where Sugo was supposed to be, but like a technological automaton, I put the incorrect address into my GPS and blindly followed where it led. And where it led was straight to the old Montgomery Wards building that had been demolished several years ago and where now stood a fenced off, empty plot of land. Thinking that there was obviously something wrong here, I headed south on State Road until I saw this lovely sign:
It was only after I pulled into the parking lot and checked the correct address for Sugo (the one on the front of the building) that I realized that the actual location was 2485 State Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223 (and NOT 2845 State Road). The restaurant can be reached at 234-678-7153. Parking was available in the lot attached to the restaurant.
Here was a shot of the front exterior of the restaurant:
Based on the exterior of the building, I suspected that the restaurant was smaller than I had originally thought. Once inside,
I realized that indeed, it wasn't very big. In fact, it was quite similar to the seating capacity at Chowder House Cafe. Because I had decided to go on a Saturday night without a reservation, I knew I had to show up early to avoid a wait for dinner. Sugo opens for dinner service at 4 PM on Monday through Saturday and since I had no place to be, I figured I'd show up a little bit after 4 PM, have a drink at the bar and then transition to a table around 5 PM or so.
The advantage of sitting at the bar right after the restaurant opened was that I had unfettered access to the woman tending the bar and got to ask lots of questions without coming across as needy. The not-so-fun thing about sitting at the bar right after the restaurant opened was that within about ten minutes, Chef Prpich made his walkthrough of the front-of-house and discovered me sitting there, slowly sipping my vodka tonic and perusing various websites on my smartphone.
Obviously, any thought of an anonymous review was out the window at this point, but to be honest, with how small the restaurant was to begin with, had I shown up during a busier period, it still wouldn't have been that difficult to pick me out from a table should the chef make his typical walkthrough of the dining room to check on how his guests were doing. Louis and I chatted for about twenty minutes before he had to finish getting ready for dinner service. At around 5 PM, the bartender walked me over to a small table where she left me with the menus.
Here was a shot of the front and back side of the regular menu:
And here was a shot of tonight's dinner specials:
While I had been sitting at the bar, the servers had been talking about the crab-stuffed fluke off of tonight's specials menu. When I saw that it came with asparagus risotto as the side, I was pretty much sold from that moment forward. But I also wanted to have something to start out the meal, too.
While I pondered my choices, my server brought out a basket of fresh bread:
Joining the bread was some herb-infused olive oil:
The bread was fresh and delicious and the dipping oil provided a nice fruity herbaceousness to complement it.
I finally managed to zero in on the appetizer that I would be having this evening, the Tuna Ribs:
Having recently had Paku ribs at the last Dinner In The Dark, I was intrigued by the notion of tuna ribs. I have never had tuna ribs before, so when I saw that the menu item had been starred (*) indicating that it was an item if consumed undercooked could cause a food borne illness, I wasn't sure how to order them. This warning is usually placed on items that can be cooked to a specific temperature (like rare, medium rare, etc.). As a general rule, when I order a protein that I've never had before, I know enough to let the chef be the one making the decision on how far to cook it. Accordingly, I told my server to have the chef cook it "at his discretion."
What came out of the kitchen several minutes later were fully cooked tuna ribs. While I am usually only a fan of fully cooked tuna in something like a tuna salad sandwich, I picked up the first rib and took a bite. The menu had stated that the ribs were marinated in a bagna cauda sauce and from my very first bite, the gentle spiciness of the marinade came through. "Absolutely delicious," was what played through my mind. The meat was tender and juicy, despite the fact they were fully cooked through, probably due to the rib meat having more fat than say, the loin.
The plate also contained carrots, celery, and cauliflower that had been pickled in an acidic hat trick of white, cider, and champagne vinegars which added an excellent textural component and zingy bite to counteract the fattiness of the tuna. To round out the dish, a small ramekin of Gorgonzola-laced crema suddenly made me realize that what Sugo was doing was essentially serving up chicken wings "of the sea." This was such a unique and delicious dish, only the knowledge of having a full entree coming to my table stopped me from finishing the entire dish by myself (the serving could easily have been split between two to three adults as a starter).
When Chef Prpich came out to check on me, I asked him about the star on the menu. He admitted that while the tuna ribs were fully cooked through, when the health board saw that he was cooking Ahi, they wanted him to star it nonetheless. Fair enough. He also confirmed with a slight smile that he did have traditional Buffalo chicken wings on his mind when he created this dish. Unfortunately, because of its unusual nature, it wasn't selling particularly well. I'm here to tell you, gentle reader, you must try out this dish. It might sound a little scary, but the results were absolutely delicious.
As I stated earlier in my review, I had decided on the Crab-stuffed Fluke with Asparagus Risotto while still sitting at the bar:
The primary focus of the Chowder House Cafe is on seafood. While Sugo is primarily serving modern Italian fare, Louis's expertise in seafood preparation was not lost on me. The fluke was cooked beautifully, tender and juicy, and the cream reduction sauce had been smartly flavored with some lemon juice, to help balance out the fattiness and enhance the flavor of the fish. The crab stuffing was good, too, but almost seemed unnecessary as the fish itself was so pristine. The grilled asparagus stalks added a nice bit of crunch and smokiness to the dish and the risotto was as much of a star as the fish was.
I was actually a bit worried at first when I tasted the risotto because I could definitely tell that it had been finished with cheese. Traditionally cheese and fish don't go so well together, but Chef Prpich managed to get the balance just right. As opposed to the soft and creamy risotto, the asparagus and carrot pieces still had a bit of their natural crunch to them, making for a wonderful contrast all in one spoonful. I ate as much of my entree as I could, but at about 2/3 of the way through the plate, I had to stop as I was just too full.
While dessert was offered, I declined and asked for my check instead. With my vodka tonic from the bar earlier and tax included, my bill tonight came to just over $37, which for this level of execution and freshness of fish, was an excellent value. Appetizers ranged from $6 - $11 and entrees (which includes several pastas) ranged from $15 - $25, so you could definitely get away with a smaller bill if money was a concern. To be honest, I probably could've made an entire meal out of the appetizer alone, it was that large. Up to this point, Sugo has been open only for dinner, but starting this week, they will also be serving lunch as well.
While every restaurant, even those opened by seasoned veterans like Louis Prpich, have their growing pains during the first month or so after they open, from what I saw and tasted during my visit tonight, I think Sugo Modern Italian Bistro is well on its way to becoming as successful as the Chowder House Cafe. I would highly suggest that you either show up during a non-peak time if you don't want to bother with reservations or just do the smart thing and call ahead to make sure they can accommodate your party at the time you prefer to dine.
For those already living in the Akron area, Sugo should be a definite addition to your dining out options. For those living outside the Akron area, now would be an excellent time to plan an extended outing, perhaps take in an Akron Aeros baseball game or a visit to the Akron Museum of Art so that you can stop in at Sugo afterwards. You'll be happy that you did.