A Bridge to Italy: Ponte Vecchio

Ever since I spent a spring torturing (oops, I mean tutoring; the words are so similar) schoolchildren on a guided Cuyahoga River boat tour with an hourlong narrative of my own creation, I've been fascinated by the many bridges of Cleveland. So, when I heard that a new Italian restaurant had opened atop the remains of the Old Superior Viaduct — which was in use from Dec. 12, 1878 until October 1918, cost $1,574,921.32 to build, originally spanned 3,211 feet and was made from local Berea sandstone ... oh, those poor kids — I absolutely had to go.

While I hardly consider myself a skilled prognosticator when it comes to betting on outcomes (I've resolved that from now on, the term "Final Four" will only describe what's left the morning after buying a 12-pack), I am officially predicting that Ponte Vecchio (Italian for "Old Bridge") is a lock for any and all dining awards for Best View.

Technically, the restaurant is on the fifth floor of a building next to the bridge. You gain access by driving pretty much to the end of the viaduct and, once inside, nothing but giant windows separates you from what may be the best vista of downtown offered by any dining room in Cleveland. Factor in the display case full of antipasti; ample, artfully arranged bins of Italy's finest wines; the sleek, curvy design of the room's lines; exposed brick walls; and the trendy lighting, and Ponte Vecchio is, like its view, pretty darned sexy.

Both of our visits to the new eatery were accompanied, however, by notably unsexy weather: serious, no-holds-barred, Northeast Ohio blizzards.

Swirls of giant snowflakes drifted across the dark space above the one-time entertainment district known as The Flats, gently illuminated by the lights of the Terminal Tower and a 700-foot ore freighter. On the downside (and this fault hopefully exists under only the worst temperature extremes), each table along the eastern windows of the dining room is formed from the same piece of granite as the windowsill beside it, which is a great idea conceptually — unless the portion of your table/windowsill outside of the building gets to be around 14 degrees, at which point you find yourself seated at an ice rink. (On our second visit, the water glasses pulled out a last-minute hat trick to defeat the cutlery, and we skipped accepting a wine chiller for our Bianco di Garganega e Sauvignon.)

To counter the cold, though, Ponte Vecchio offers what may be the largest Italian wine list we've encountered in Ohio. Each region and variety is exceptionally well represented, with choices from moderate to expensive. If you've never ventured farther into the wines of the Mediterranean's sunny peninsula than Chianti and Pinot Grigio, Ponte Vecchio would be the place to start exploring.

Cold weather also seems to make one crave the warmth of genuine hospitality, something that we received only sporadically from the Ponte Vecchio staff. On one hand, Marco Rossi, a familiar face and veteran of many of this city's notable Italian dining locations, has made his reputation by being one of Cleveland's most gracious and accommodating hosts. His suave, cultured demeanor easily wins over his devoted clientele and seems to truly engender many with a genuine sense of warmth (certain other local critics very much included). Unfortunately, on both of our visits, Rossi seemed deeply embroiled in kitchen duties (opening chef Fabio Danzo departed in January, leaving the kitchen to Rossi and his dedicated staff).

It seems that the master has not yet had sufficient time to teach his ways to all the servers, as their performance was often uneven. Notably, on one visit, we sat at our table for 20-odd minutes before being approached, at which point there appeared to be some confusion over how we'd appeared there. It also took a good while to acquire menus on both trips. (On the plus side, the busboy was money with the bread and water.)

Perhaps most importantly, the winter makes us crave delicious treats from the kitchen. Ponte Vecchio supplies them in abundance. Each of the appetizers or antipasti we sampled was excellent. The Primizie della casa ($14, $10 for a half portion), a classic sampling of Italian meats and cheeses, cured olives and peppers, artichoke heart and anchovies, is always a favorite, especially when accompanied by superb bread as at Ponte Vecchio.

The Timballo di avocado e scampi ($12), a delightful Mediterranean combination of chilled scampi and ripe avocado mixed with a light, flavorful Dijon mustard and lemon dressing, was rich and sumptuous, yet light and fresh on the palate, as was the Vitello tonnato ($13), thinly sliced veal in a sauce of tuna, mayonnaise and lemon. In these dishes, as throughout the menu, Ponte Vecchio demonstrates the importance of restraint and simplicity in constructing excellent dishes where fine ingredients are showcased through understatement.

No dish is more simple or perfect than carpaccio ($13). The richness and texture of paper-thin slices of raw beef are highlighted by shaved Parmesan, lemon and olive oil. (On one visit, though, the last two ingredients were a bit too abundant and slightly overpowering.)

Moving in order of a classic Italian dining experience, the menu next brings you to soup, risotto and pastas. Ponte Vecchio offers many of the dishes in this section in both full and half servings. We recommend splitting a half portion as a second course before entrees or, if you've got somewhere else to be, as a side dish. The Risotto al funghi porcini, Barolo, e fili blu ($20/$12) was creamy perfection complemented by the meaty, rich porcini mushrooms and tangy Gorgonzola cheese. Good, but less so, the Pappardelle con vitellina e petto d'anatra ($21/$12) offered a well-balanced ragout of duck and veal, scented with an evocative spice blend. Unfortunately, the kitchen missed the mark a bit on the pasta-to-topping ratio, resulting in a lot of plain pappardelle.

Entrees were each excellent and in keeping with the culinary themes present throughout the menu. Poached grouper ($24) was moist, fresh and presented in a flavorful tomato broth with clams. Strangely, the fish appeared to have been sautéed rather than poached, so perhaps the menu and the kitchen aren't seeing eye to eye. The Piccatini di vitella al Barolo ($26) offered tender sautéed slices of pounded veal with porcini mushrooms, artichoke hearts and a rich, tangy Barolo reduction. This offering was perfectly executed but possibly a little overpriced (there has to be some way to pay for a million-dollar view, eh?).

The double-cut pork chop ($23) was perfectly moist and sided with the classic flavors of caramelized apples and Marsala wine, with earthy, garlicky white-truffle oil providing a subtle bass note.

The desserts, largely from local pastry chef extraordinaire Ron Seballos' Tremont shop, looked and sounded tempting, but, alas, we opted out, assuming that waddling only works well in the snow for penguins. Warm cups of espresso were plenty and helped to fortify our frames against the tempest outside.

Rossi promises an outdoor dining area and bar this summer, an incredibly appealing thought during these dreary months. Given the restaurant's simple, yet exceptional Mediterranean cuisine; its vast array of wonderful, light Italian wines; and the fabulous location, we'll surely be back once the snow stops flying. Did we mention the view?

Ponte Vecchio, 2100 Superior Viaduct, Suite 520, Cleveland, (216) 556-8200. Hours: Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - 10:30 p.m.

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