Down South: Russo's


There's a long stretch of north-south road — known variously as State Road, Main Street or, for the real old-timers, Old Route 8 — that traverses much of the length of Summit County. The portion of the road that cuts through Cuyahoga Falls, the ghost of Northampton (it was annexed by the aforementioned city back in the late '80s) and Peninsula has been a fixture in my life since childhood.

Grandma and Grandpa's old house was on this road and you can still see the remnants of their orchard back in the woods behind the old Wonder Bakery Thrift Store. This road was always a mixed-use byway with agrarianism bumping up against small car dealerships, ice-cream stands, pet groomers and just about anything else you could imagine on a quasi-rural artery on the edge of highly populated suburbia. There seemed, especially, to be a large number of motels advertising hourly or weekly rates that my folks wouldn't let me near and restaurants with names evocative of the Old West. (The Wagon Wheel springs to mind.) In short, State Road had the aura of a place with more of a past than a future, and I was often sadder for it.

About a year ago, however, word began to reach me that a new restaurant had opened on State Road in Peninsula; a restaurant that was not only a place my folks would have let me enter, but also where the food was magnificent and the seats nearly always full. It was immediately obvious that these reports were concocted by the chronically misinformed (or the local chamber of commerce), so I dismissed them out of hand. Nonetheless, the rumors persisted, along with an eventual name: Russo's. Based on my evidently outdated knowledge of the area, it may as well have been called Brigadoon, because it was obvious that there could be no such place.

Imagine, then, my happy surprise when I not only located Russo's, but also found it to be one of the better local restaurants I've encountered in Summit County. David Russo's eponymous eatery is fantastic and no secret to the area's dining public.

Russo, who opened his new eatery in August 2002, first came to the notice of Akron-area diners as the mastermind behind the authentic Cajun and Italian cuisine served at his first venture, Liberty Street Brewing Co. The upscale brewpub drew legions of loyal diners (and drinkers) to Akron's Merriman Valley before closing its doors after eight successful — but in Russo's view, increasingly difficult — years in business. The work involved in running all facets of the operation, while still providing the quality of food that his guests had come to expect, was too often a burden that Russo carried alone. So, he elected to move on.

Soon after the doors closed at Liberty Street, Russo's brother-in-law, Darrell Cartwright, proposed building a facility that could house both his own construction business and a new restaurant that would truly showcase Russo's excellent cuisine.

What a showcase it is. In designing his dining area, Russo moved beyond the usual open-kitchen concept and actually wrapped the bar around the hot line and expediting area, creating an amazingly interactive, social and vibrant dining experience. There is lots of other comfortable-looking seating, but, unless you have a general aversion to conviviality, we say sit at the bar and enjoy the show.

In choosing this format, Russo wanted to show guests the hard work and integrity involved in the preparation of excellent food and, hopefully, elevate people's respect for the position of chef or cook. It's a respect he feels is too often lacking in Northeast Ohio.

Born into an Italian family in Cuyahoga Falls, Russo was fascinated with cooking from an early age. His father, however, refused to allow him to pursue a culinary career. Overcome by his desire to enter the world of chefs and kitchens, Russo left home for New Orleans, the town that seemed to hold the most vibrant dining scene in the early '80s, with such chefs as Paul Prudhomme propelling Cajun cooking to national attention.

"I was the first white person ever hired at Gallatoire's," says Russo. A legend in New Orleans since it opened in 1905, Gallatoire's has dished excellent French Creole cuisine to loyal patrons for years in an almost-unchanging atmosphere of class and gentility. Russo, however, found the staff less than genteel toward the white boy from Ohio, with no one willing to lend him a hand in learning the ropes.

According to Russo, "all this changed one day when I was walking through a rough area of town, happily waving to the people on their porches. A car filled with fellow Gallatoire's employees pulled up alongside of me and told me to get my ass in the car before I got myself killed. From this, they could tell I wasn't a spy hired by the owners or a cop and, from then on, they accepted me and helped me to learn."

Ambling through New Orleans also brought Russo face to face with his culinary hero. "I was walking past Paul Prudhomme's spice factory when he literally ran into me in his golf cart. He asked if I was all right and if there was anything he could do. I said, 'Yes, as a matter of fact, I came to New Orleans to work for you.' " Russo was hired on at Prudhomme's K-Paul, where he remained for a year and a half before making the jump to the larger, faster-paced Commander's Palace, the scion of New Orleans dining.

"Prudhomme had just left Commander's as head chef, so I had no trouble getting hired," Russo says. At about this same time, the restaurant also secured the services of a little-known chef from Massachusetts with a deep interest in and flair for Cajun and Creole cuisine. And so, for the next two years, Russo was under the culinary tutelage of executive chef Emeril Lagasse. (We think he has a show on TV or something like that -- at least the name sounds vaguely familiar.)

Russo spent another seven years with Emeril, working his way up through the ranks at the omnipresent chef's eponymous New Orleans eatery. His time at Emeril's and in the Big Easy taught Russo much of his restaurant philosophy and allowed him to develop the excellent cooking skills and imaginative menu items that have earned him the notoriety and loyal following that he now enjoys.

Having sampled much of the food at Russo's, we can safely say that we, too, could easily begin to count ourselves among his acolytes. In fact, so many dishes were outstanding and so few (none, actually) missed the mark, that we find ourselves sitting here with the open menu, wondering where to begin.

The Southern-fried green tomatoes with jumbo lump crab and crawfish ($9.95) from the specials menu were a savory explosion on the palate with a fabulous commingling of Southern flavors. For those not keen on crustaceans, the stacked salad of fried green and red beefsteak tomatoes was equally satisfying.

Other outstanding starters, listed in no particular order, include the Gumbo Yaya (cup $5.50/bowl $7), a simply perfect rendering of the Bayou classic; the cavatelli with a sauté of Louisiana crawfish sauce ($9.99), a holdover from Liberty Street; and the Arancini ($7.50), deep-fried, saffron-flavored riceballs stuffed with mozzarella, meat and vegetables.

It bears repeating that everything we had was worth trying and, between the regular menu items and the extensive specials, we would not have enough space to praise all that we tried.

Entrees range from pastas, which are all excellent, though mostly traditional compositions, to Cajun items — where the jambalaya ($14.95) and étouffée ($14.95) were as authentic as any we've found this side of the Mason-Dixon Line — to the vast and varying selections that comprise the "favorites" section of the menu and the six or so daily special entrees. For a real dose of comfort, the chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and pan gravy ($15.99) was a hearty and deeply satisfying study in the art of elevated home cooking. So, too, was the beef, veal and pork meatloaf with creamed potatoes, Cajun beef gravy and roasted vegetables ($15.99).

It's in the specials that Russo's creativity truly shines, with great sensitivity shown to the use of the freshest seasonal ingredients in memorably delectable dishes. Each of our visits featured an entree of sautéed Louisiana soft-shell crabs ($24) in various preparations, always with excellent results. Russo uses only fresh Louisiana crabs that, along with all of his other seafood, are flown into Cleveland from the Louisiana Seafood Exchange. Here, as with everything at Russo's, the seafood selection is fresh and outstanding. Our visits yielded both halibut and blue-nose bass dishes ($27) that were replete in a classic mélange of Creole flavors.

Back on land, the grilled double-cut pork rib chop with baked beans, collard greens and Jack Daniels/molasses barbecue sauce ($18.95) seems to have become a stalwart special at Russo's, and for good reason. Every portion of this dish had as much soul as a James Brown LP, with some truly righteous collard greens that have become a secret and much-ordered side dish among the restaurant's regulars.

Not to belabor the point (OK, I'll belabor it), but Russo's food is spectacular from beginning to end. The desserts, speaking of ends, are shamefully good and all made in house.

It's good to see that things are changing in my old stomping grounds and that great food and good times have found a permanent home in Summit County. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Russo's, 4895 State Road, Peninsula, (330) 923-2665. Hours: lunch: Tue-Sat 11 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; dinner: Tue-Sat 5 p.m. - close.

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