Better with Age: The Baricelli Inn

I’ve been married to the same guy for almost 38 years. With all that history, we know each other well. That’s not to say we haven’t changed or gone through numerous iterations of ourselves. Although the fundamentals have remained constant, he can still surprise me, and this keeps things interesting.

Baricelli Inn has been around a long time as well, and the restaurant has recently done some shape-shifting of its own. It opened in December 1985 as a formal fine-dining establishment where fancy, French-influenced Continental cuisine ruled and expensive multicourse meals were standard. The well-heeled and expense-account crowds came often, and the rest of us showed up once a year for a special night out.

But owner Paul Minnillo, one of Cleveland’s most respected and accomplished chefs, has long been a local culinary trendsetter — he’s no one-trick pony.

Responding to the casual sensibility that defines contemporary American culture, Minnillo has abandoned the Four Diamond style and gone casual with help from his son John and chef Chris DiLisi, both of whom bring a younger perspective to the table. He’s made the old place new again, offering simpler, more accessible food and adding moderately priced items in the mix.

“I loved what we did for the past 22 years,” he says. “But nobody wants to dress up to go out to eat anymore. And with the price of gas and groceries, people think twice about what they spend for dinner. We’re changing with the times.”

So don’t let the name and address of this venerable Little Italy landmark keep you away. The reinvented Baricelli Inn aims to be more of a bistro with options for dining light, sharing or snacking. If you haven’t been here in the last year, you’re in for some unexpected — and affordable — pleasures.

The basics are as before: intimate rooms in an elegant, restored 19th-century

mansion, white linens on the tables and attentive, polished service. The garden patio is as lovely as ever. Small, upscale touches endure, such as the little bottle of high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil on the table and a wine list fat with $125 Brunellos and Barolos.

But now the selection of reds and whites includes many good $30 to $60 bottles from California, Australia and other New World vintners.

Those who wish can still splurge on a 16-ounce aged Angus ribeye ($35) or a halibut entree ($29), but you can feel just as comfortable ordering only a salumi board for two ($18). The spread of wonderful cured meats, including prosciutto and coppa, comes from Salumeria Biellese in New York City, where they’ve been making it the same way since 1925.

Or come in to close out an evening with a magnificent selection of artisanal and farmhouse cheeses (three for $14, five for $17, seven for $19). Minnillo keeps around 40 varieties in his aging cooler and serves them at peak “bloom” with fruit and crackers.

Ingredients fluctuate with the seasons, but the menu is always built around rustic, Italian-inspired fare. This is roots food for Minnillo, the kind he favors when traveling the Florence-to-Rome circuit.

It’s beautifully expressed in the homey roast chicken with panzanella ($24). The cubes of bread that characterize this traditional Tuscan salad soak up a citrus vinaigrette, and the crunch of diced cucumbers, peppers and onions is the ideal foil for the tender bird.

The kitchen turns out stellar, authentic pasta dishes. An extra bonus is that half portions are available. So, for instance, you can order the delectable golden trout ($23), its flavor amplified by toasted pecans and bacon, and also have a taste of the gnudi ($12/$22). These soft, luscious little “naked” dumplings are made with sheep’s milk ricotta, tossed with mushrooms and served sans sauce. Or try the basil ricotta ravioli ($11/$20). The squares, topped with a colorful mix of heirloom cherry tomatoes, float in a puddle of thin, clear, delicately seasoned consommé.

The saffron linguine ($15/$26) is also a must-have. The chewy strands are tossed with lobster, peas and arugula, which adds a nice nutty note, and prepared al burro with sweet butter and Parmesan cheese.

Zesty bucatini all’ Amatriciana ($12/$22) is the best version of this classic preparation in town, with thick, hollow tubes of spaghetti and San Marzano tomatoes that have been cooked with crisped bits of pancetta.

A presentation of lamb ribs ($13), done with a five-spice rub and plated with Asian slaw and a miniature glass canning jar filled with mango chutney, is the one item on the menu that doesn’t exactly say “pair with Chianti.” But don’t let that stop you. Created by DiLisi, it’s an original and terrific choice. Enjoy it as a starter or add a side of creamy polenta ($7) and call it supper.

The young chef is also responsible for the playful desserts, including the Mojito Float ($10), an adults-only confection combining an after-dinner drink with a scoop of mango ice cream, and the cayenne-spiked “hot” chocolate bombe ($11).

Local produce is featured when available, and Minnillo even grows his own

tomatoes at home and in a plot behind the restaurant. As the days get shorter and cooler, watch for the fall harvest meal deal: three courses spotlighting squash, apples and pears every Tuesday for $30.

My anniversary is in November, and it falls on a weeknight. I think the husband and I will mark the date at Baricelli, even though it’s no longer just a special-occasion destination. We can wear jeans, eat well and nurse glasses of fine Walnut City Pinot Noir or Burgess Syrah (both $10, bottles $40) by candlelight at a quiet table for two without breaking the bank. And that’s something to celebrate.

The Baricelli Inn, 2203 Cornell Road, Cleveland, (216) 791-6500, Mon-Thu 5 -10 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 - 11 p.m.;
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