"The first time in three weeks I was gonna play golf and look what happens," restaurateur Carl Quagliata says, gesturing at the pouring rain outside and shaking his head. "Never fails."
Because of the foul weather, Quagliata has had to fall back on his usual routine this Monday morning. Before 9:30 a.m., he is installed at his Ristorante Giovanni's in Beachwood, answering early calls for dinner reservations and checking on the progress of a cleaner at work on a spill from Saturday night's full house. A tub of fresh daffodils rests on a cart by the foyer, waiting to be artfully dispersed among the day's floral arrangements.
In the course of the next hour, executive chef Jim Markusic, maitre d' Pier-Luigi "Pierre" Gregori and the servers on duty for lunch black-tie formalwear on hangers over their shoulders all troop in, say their quiet good mornings and set to work.
This is the start of Quagliata's day six days a week. He spends a couple of hours at home in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner, but often he won't leave the restaurant until after closing. Personal involvement is his management style. "You know, if you don't have a lot of brains, you have to work hard," he chuckles. "So that's my problem."
|Pick up the November 2001 issue of Cleveland Magazine to read Michael von Glahn's complete review of Ristorante Giovanni's.|
Despite his well-known modesty, credit Quagliata for both effort and smarts in the solid success of Giovanni's, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. The continental restaurant is a repeat winner (nine times so far) of Four Diamonds from the AAA Ohio Motorists Association, one of only three eateries in Northeast Ohio to earn the honor this year. Giovanni's also repeated for a Wine Spectator Best Award of Excellence.
Taste What You Order
For dinner, we started with a bottle of 1995 Barolo Cannubi ($100) from Giovanni's award-winning wine list. "Love in a bottle" is how one companion aptly described this robust Italian red. It suited our diverse array of appetizers admirably, from a daily special of tender lamb ravioli with portobello mushroom, rosemary and goat-cheese cream ($13.95) to a hearty, autumnal beef, mushroom and barley soup ($6.95).
Quality tells, and it was evident in an app of beef carpaccio in a mild, creamy aioli with crisp frisée ($11). Beforehand, we might have wished for a more garlicky aioli or a sharp mustard, but Quagliata and chef Markusic know what they're doing. The flavor of good carpaccio is so subtle that it would be easy to overwhelm and what then would be the point?
"I think when somebody orders something they should taste what they're ordering," Quagliata explains. "The product itself is so fantastic, I don't wanna camouflage it. I wanna lace it, but not camouflage it."
Tableside Show Biz
Salads are à la carte and the arrival of our choices set off a flurry of sharing around the table. Meaty grilled portobello slices on mesclun greens with a vibrant port vinaigrette ($9.50) are heavenly. Giovanni's Caesar ($7.50) is a classic, if lacking in the salty anchovies that many feel make or break a Caesar.
Caesars are prepared tableside for groups, though Quagliata says he'll do it himself if an individual diner requests the show biz.
Fish is deboned tableside and meat, such as rack of lamb, is sliced there, as well. When available, certain desserts crêpes suzette, zabaglione, cherries jubilee, bananas Foster are also made or finished while you watch.
Good, in Any Language
The menu presents each dish in lengthy Italian with a simple English translation beneath for those who would rather wrap their tongues around rabbit- and sweetbread-stuffed pasta than Tortelloni di Animelle e Coniglio in Sugo Naturale al Infuso di Alloro.
Pan-roasted swordfish fillet alla Diavolo ($29.95) was a winner. Laden with crushed red pepper, shrimp, rings of calamari, sliced squash and organic romano beans, the fillet was at least 3 inches thick, with flavor to rival a fine beefsteak.
Also from the specials, seared salmon fillet ($28.95) topped by lump blue-crab meat and napped with a citrus-scented bearnaise sauce proved a treat. The salmon was of excellent quality and, again, portioned very generously. Roasted new potatoes made for an addictive side.
Though mightily tempted by roast Canadian duck with wild risotto, red currants and orange demi-sauce ($24.50), we opted for a classic beef dish from the regular menu to weigh against all the seafood at the table: char-grilled filet mignon with herb-roasted potatoes ($33). We ordered it at the far rare end of medium-rare and our server advised us that this was a good choice, since the kitchen "likes to undercook." The filet, aged for three weeks and tender enough to cut with a sharp glance, arrived prepared perfectly to order. Topped by a slice of portobello and lolling plumply atop a chianti reduction, its flavor was nothing short of superb. If anyone spotted a tear in our eye after the last bite, it wasn't the wailing of Pagliacci that caused it.
A glass-pour of '97 Trambusti Sangiovese complemented the filet admirably.
As expected for a place with such strong Italian roots, pasta is done right at Giovanni's. All pastas are dished from a sauté pan kept covered over a warming flame on the serving cart. "If it sits back one minute under [a warming] light, it just crusts, the sauce crusts," Quagliata explains, grimacing at the thought. "It looks ugly."
Despite the primo pasta and the Italian verbiage on the menu, Quagliata says that Giovanni's "is not as Italian as everybody thinks it is. I tried to make it very Italian initially, and that first menu lasted maybe a year and a half. ... Then we changed to a more cosmopolitan menu, basically the same type of menu we have right now."
No Jacket Required (Anymore)
Service may be black-tie, but, contrary to common perception, Giovanni's rescinded its jackets-required policy about a dozen years ago. Most nights, you'll never know it, and staffers taking reservations often point out that jackets are "preferred."
In 1976, the week Giovanni's opened, Quagliata learned just how much enforcing proper attire rubbed some people the wrong way. He politely and apologetically informed two men in a group of eight of the jackets-required rule for the dining room. The men grew loudly belligerent and refused the offer of loaner jackets. After storming out, they set fire to the shrubbery by the building's entrance.
Fireworks of a gentler sort may be in evidence later this month when Quagliata says Giovanni's will stage some sort of weeklong celebration to mark its anniversary.
Since he only has room for 150 at a time, Quagliata might need to block out more than a week to accommodate all the diners who will want to salute the treasure that is Giovanni's.