From Grandma's Kitchen: Filomena's Restaurant

Filomena's Restaurant, Little Italy

Fans of Filomena's Restaurant on Murray Hill Road in Little Italy aren't looking for cutting-edge cuisine or trendy presentations. They want solid, home style Italian-American fare as prepared by neighborhood mothers and grandmothers for generations.

Co-owners Linda Farinacci and Andrew LoConti describe their restaurant's cuisine as "traditional Italian-American food, right from Nona's kitchen." (Nona is Italian for grandma). "By a coincidence, we both had grandmothers named Filomena, so when the time came to pick a name for our restaurant, Filomena was the obvious choice," says LoConti, who doubles as executive chef.

Both had been in the food business for years before opening Filomena's, LoConti in his family's catering operation, Farinacci with a bar and grill in the Collinwood neighborhood. "We thought Little Italy was the perfect spot for the kind of restaurant we planned," says Farinacci. "The area is well established as a dining destination. That helps us. Yet we're different enough from the other restaurants around here: We expand the choices for people who come into Little Italy to eat."

"All of our food is cooked to order," adds LoConti, "and it can be ordered any way the diner likes it: with sauce, without sauce, with garlic, without garlic, et cetera. We want people to be happy."

Filomena's is a comfortable place to enjoy a hearty meal. Decor is simple and unpretentious. The bar, with its natural wood floors and giant fireplace, is particularly attractive with a great homey atmosphere. There's also outdoor dining on the deck when weather permits.

Appetizers are pretty much what you'd expect. Portions (as with all of Filomena's food) are generous enough for sharing. Stuffed mushrooms ($8.95) carry a heavy cargo of breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs. The menu lists clams as an ingredient of the stuffing, but we could detect none. Hot peppers ($8.95) are stuffed with a spicy blend of Italian sausage, breadcrumbs and ricotta. As always with hot peppers, they can vary unpredictably from pleasantly piquant to hot as the hinges of hell, so if you're not of the "mo' hotta mo' betta" philosophy, proceed with caution.

Calamari ($7.95) are perfectly cooked, tender and delicious. They're lightly breaded, gently sautéed and served with a peppery marinara sauce for dipping. Filomena's bruschetta ($7.95) is made with toasted flatbread rather than the usual rounds, and topped with a tasty mix of chopped tomatoes, olives and herbs.

Fried bread dough is perhaps the ultimate Italian-American comfort food, harking back as it does to the days when many housewives made their own bread, then fried up leftover bits of dough and sprinkled it with sugar as a special treat. At Filomena's, fried dough appears as an appetizer ($4.95) with the diner's choice of sugar, cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. It's a real trip down memory lane.

The restaurant's wedding soup ($4.95) is a winner. It's made from scratch — not a hint of soup base or factory-made concentrate will do for chef Loconti. He tells us he makes fresh broth daily from chicken breasts and aromatic vegetables. Shredded chicken breast meat, housemade tiny meatballs and freshly chopped escarole complete the presentation. Don't miss it.

As in most Italian-American restaurants, all entrees come with your choice of soup or a house salad, and a side of spaghetti, rigatoni or angelhair pasta (Italian immigrants gave up the Old Country habit of eating pasta and meat as separate courses from different plates almost as soon as they hit these shores). At Filomena's, salad greens are fresh and crisp. Dressings, on the other hand, are lackluster. Pasta is perfectly cooked and generously dressed with the housemade marinara sauce — tasty if a bit heavy on dried thyme.

Veal cutlet Milan style ($14.95) is a jumbo cutlet coated with breadcrumbs and fried golden brown and crisp. Veal Milanese is traditionally served plain and unadorned, but here the kitchen couldn't resist the urge to gild the lily by topping the cutlet with a chopped tomato salad. Not bad; just not as expected. The cutlet is served on a bed of orecchiette (shaped like tiny ears) pasta, perfectly al dente and tastily dressed with garlic and oil.

LoConti says his recipe for veal braciola ($15.95) comes right from Grandma Filomena. It was worth saving. A tender veal steak is coated with prosciutto, sausage, ricotta and hard-boiled egg, then tied up jellyroll fashion and braised in marinara sauce. The braciola is delicious, though the accompanying cavatelli pasta were a tad too chewy.

asta entrees include fettuccine Alfredo (with chicken or lobster), ravioli and meat- or cheese-filled shells. We tried fettuccine generously studded with chunks of tender and juicy grilled chicken breast ($14.95). Unique to this restaurant is a crazy, but tasty, "upside-down" lasagna made of two shapes of pasta baked in meat sauce with cheese and hard-boiled eggs ($10.95).

esserts, all in the $4-to-$5 range, include tiramisu, cannoli and the occasional cake or torte as available. The homemade tiramisu is the best of the bunch. It was creamy and luscious, if rather light on coffee flavor. The cannoli filling was too strongly spiced with cinnamon, and the walnut torte served one evening was totally forgettable.

The restaurant is set back from the street, so you might miss it if you're not looking. Unlike most Little Italy eateries, there's plenty of parking.

Filomena's Restaurant, 2198 Murray Hill Road, Little Italy, Cleveland, (216) 791-1600. Hours: Wed-Fri 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sat 3 - 10 p.m., Sun noon - 8 p.m.

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