Paul Minnillo's Baricelli Inn may well be Cleveland's premier special-occasion restaurant. Surroundings are gorgeous, service is friendly and efficient. Owner Minnillo and his executive chef, Mark Pierce, make it their mission to locate the finest ingredients available — wherever the search may take them — and then prepare and present these ingredients with consummate skill. Prices are high for Cleveland, but consider: the world-class quality of ingredients, the lush ambiance, the generous portions and the fact that for several years Baricelli Inn has been recognized as one of the 50 best restaurants in America by Gourmet Magazine. In that perspective, the bite on your wallet doesn't seem so painful.
The restaurant is housed in a vintage-1896 brownstone mansion in Little Italy that was once home to the neighborhood's leading family of overachievers. Dr. Baricelli was a prominent physician and his wife, dotoressa Baricelli, taught Italian at Flora Stone Mather College of Western Reserve University. The Minnillo family, neighborhood restaurateurs for generations, bought the mansion in 1981 after it had sat empty for years. It opened as the Baricelli Inn Restaurant/Bed & Breakfast after a four-year renovation.
Minnillo says that someday the inn might become the centerpiece of neighborhood redevelopment including condominiums and retail space, "but only if any such development was consistent in architectural style and quality with this historic building."
Try to reserve a table on the glassed-in front porch. The restaurant offers outdoor dining in season, but on the porch you'll be surrounded by greenery, as though dining alfresco, without having to contend with noise and bugs.
The pampering starts as soon as you're seated. Note the beautiful tabletop featuring china by Villeroy & Boch. The paper-thin crystal of the stemware tells you this is a place that's serious about wine. The ramekin of imported French butter (higher in butterfat than most American-made) alerts you to Minnillo's and Pierce's worldwide hunt for the best. Before long, a little tidbit arrives, compliments of the chef, to amuse the palate as you peruse the wine list and menu — on our visit, this was a Mission fig stuffed with goat cheese.
In addition to extensive offerings of wines by the bottle, there's an excellent selection of house wines and champagnes available by the glass or by the bottle. Try the Cabreo la Pietra, a luscious and buttery Italian Chardonnay, with appetizers or seafood. Nozzole Chianti Classico Riserva is a rich and velvety accompaniment to red meat (both $10.50 by the glass, $40 per bottle).
The wine list is mostly the work of Minnillo, who shares kitchen duties with Pierce. While two chefs in the same kitchen may seem like a recipe for trouble, Minnillo says they have worked together smoothly for more than a decade.
The menu changes with the seasons. We were lucky enough to pay a visit during high summer when produce — much of it locally grown in Huron — was at its peak. One gift of the season was an extraordinary appetizer of crab ravioli served with stuffed zucchini-squash blossoms. The ravioli featured perfectly cooked thin pasta shells bursting with sweet, succulent peekytoe crabmeat. The squash blossoms, filled with rich and creamy ricotta imported from Italy, were batter-dipped and perfectly fried. A puddle of roasted yellow-pepper sauce, with a hint of spice, completed the dish ($13).
Other appetizers worth considering include shrimp, firm and luscious, crusted with fennel and served with corn fritters fried to a flawless golden-brown crunch (a high-class version of hush puppies perhaps). Shrimp and fritters are swathed in sweet-corn sauce scented with saffron ($14). Or choose a delicious concoction of grilled eggplant layered with oven-roasted Roma tomatoes and pleasantly salty olives, topped with a brown and bubbly topping of smoked Gouda cheese ($11).
For me, a show-stopper was the Italian meat board. While a platter of sliced cured meats, an affettato, is probably the most commonly served appetizer in Italy, for some reason it's not on most Italian-American menus. Happily, at Baricelli Inn we can get a taste of what we've been missing.
While many Italian-style cold cuts made in America are good, Italian-made cured-pork products (salumi) represent a quantum leap in quality. The affettato at Baricelli Inn features paper-thin slices of San Daniele prosciutto (one of Italy's three best cured hams), slices of mortadella (the mother of all bolognas), wonderfully salty Tuscan salami and a perfect Genoa-style salami, both imported. There's plenty for two (or three) to share ($18).
Salads include a combination of fava beans with white asparagus and arugula dressed with basil vinaigrette ($13). Another gift of the season is a salad of field greens nesting a clutch of fresh figs stuffed with a creamy bleu cheese, each topped with a curl of San Daniele prosciutto ($14).
The entree list includes something for everyone: vegetarians, red-meat cravers, seafood lovers and poultry aficionados. Chef Pierce's basil risotto is made, he informs us, without meat broth, so it's the ideal vegetarian (though not vegan) dish. Reductions of two different varieties — sweet green Italian and red-leaf Thai opal basil — yield, respectively, a green and a red-tinted risotto. The two are finished with a bit of wine, cream and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, then swirled together for a picture-perfect presentation. The rice is perfectly cooked, creamy and delicious, with just enough al dente firmness to please the tooth ($24).
For his lamb chops, the chef ignores the garlic/rosemary/mint clichÃ©s and instead crusts his prime Colorado chops with sage and sets them on a pool of sage-scented broth reduction. The meat was well crusted, tender and tasty, cooked to medium-rare perfection as ordered. A brace of fennel-crusted Vidalia onion rings completes the presentation ($36).
A jumbo 16-ounce veal chop, bone in, is grilled and served on a wave of reduced cabernet and teamed with a mound of garlic-flavored mashed potatoes and an assortment of baby vegetables. The veal was perfect and perfectly cooked, though the potatoes would have been better with less garlic. The dish comes with a hefty $45 price tag — it's a huge serving, but still costs a good $10 more than the veal chop at a competing special-event restaurant that will remain nameless.
Seafood lovers might enjoy a thick fillet of local walleye finished with sherry-flavored beurre blanc ($27). A unique Baricelli specialty is tuna three ways. The three-story dish starts with a layer of tuna carpaccio: slices of sashimi-grade raw tuna pounded into translucent sheets. A mound of tuna tartare, chunks of raw tuna mixed with crunchy vegetables, forms the second story. The penthouse is composed of slices of seared tuna, blackened on the outside, blood rare on the inside. It's inspired architecture ($29).
At this writing, Baricelli Inn was between pastry chefs, but some dessert selections were being brought in from outside suppliers. These include some of the usual suspects (chocolate cake and tiramisu) as well as a tangy, tasty citrus tart (all $9.50).
Better to ignore dessert and play to the restaurant's real strength: a cheese course. Minnillo has installed the area's only affinage, a specially constructed area where cheeses are kept at the ideal temperature and humidity for storage and where they're aged to perfection. Choices include both pasteurized and nonpasteurized artisanal and farmhouse cheeses that Minnillo selects from the best offerings of France, Italy and the United States. Cheeses are offered both as first and last courses, but they work best at the end of the meal. Choose three cheeses for $12, five for $15 or seven for $17. All cheeses are available for retail sale. Your server, or the chef, will be happy to assist with your selection.
The Baricelli Inn, 2203 Cornell Road, Little Italy, Cleveland, (216) 791-6500. Dinner only: Mon-Thu 5:30 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5:30 - 11 p.m. Enter the parking lot from the Murray Hill Road side of the building. The Baricelli Inn is wheelchair accessible.