For Fabio Salerno, being in the kitchen is like a second home.
His mother and father ran a cafe from the time he was 5 years old through when he graduated high school. "I'm a child of the industry. I was born into the restaurant business," says the chef and owner of Lago on the East Bank of the Flats. "I did everything: washed dishes, cooked, bussed tables, served."
And as his name might imply, both of Salerno's parents are Italian.
"Well, my ma says she's Sicilian," he clarifies. "She likes that distinction."
On its surface, Lago doesn't scream fine Italian dining. It's a far cry from the trattorias lining Mayfield Road in Little Italy. There are no white tablecloths, no dusty kitsch crammed in corners and on walls, no wine bottles turned candleholders. If you set aside the fact that nearly every inch of the place is custom-designed by one of Salerno's friends, you have to look pretty hard to find any overtly personal touches at all.
One 5-by-7 silver framed photo, digitally aged in sepia tones, shows a smiling Salerno surrounded by his four children. The youngest, a toddler, is propped up on his knee. The photo is inconspicuous, sitting at eye level on open shelving near the kitchen, which holds Champagne buckets, extra flatware, and salt and pepper shakers.
As he passes the bar, an older customer touches Salerno's shoulder.
"You have the most gorgeous kids," she gushes.
His smile is instantaneous. "Thank you," he says. "I really do. I'm very fortunate."
His oldest, 16-year-old Dominic, busses tables after school and on weekends.
"It teaches you tremendous work ethic," says Salerno. "And if you're not working hard, boy, someone's going to let you know pretty fast."
Salerno also works with his wife, Nicole, whom he calls "The Boss."
"She picks up all the loose pieces," Salerno says. "She's the hardest worker I've ever seen in my life. She can bartend better than anybody, she can serve. She's that utility person."
Husband-and-wife teams can often get tense, and family or marital stress can impact the business (or vice versa). But Salerno clearly loves working with Nicole.
"We've found a way to do it for 16 years and never got in an argument," he says.
The restaurant's dining room looks out over the East Bank, though the view is now blocked by a huge construction project. Salerno points out the window toward the structure.
"It's funny," he says. "We actually met 200 feet that way, right where that building sits."
Lago's new spot opened 10 months after the original Tremont location closed and has been in operation for about a year on the ground floor of the Aloft Cleveland Downtown hotel. Many thought the Salernos were crazy to leave the West Side neighborhood.
The move was largely based on the Salernos' goal to start a catering company, which the Tremont kitchen was too small to accommodate. Fridays and Saturdays can both draw and comfortably handle crowds of up to 300, particularly during the brief Cleveland patio season, when Lago's huge 20-seat cabana and two tabletop fire pits lend the outdoor space a lounge atmosphere.
Inside, dark wood elements recall the original surroundings, punched up with metallic glass tile, cement, dim globe lamps and a modern glass fireplace. It's definitely designed to sparkle at night, though it can come off feeling cold and impersonal while the sun is still up.
By contrast, the menu — heavy on appetizers and pasta entrees with plenty of options for everyone — is a solid mix of traditional and contemporary.
"Probably, my grandfather wouldn't really appreciate that much," Salerno says of the menu's modern twists — such as the prosciutto-wrapped potato, broccolini and truffled demi accompanying the 24-ounce rib-eye ($54) or the baked cavatelli ($16) with exotic mushrooms and goat cheese.
The $9 meatball appetizer consists of three amazingly tender beef, pork and veal meatballs covered in the kind of tomato sauce that requires hours in the pot: a little salty, a little sweet, smelling of garlic more than tasting of it, with recognizable flecks of basil and just-right acidity.
"The earliest memories are my mom, my grandmother, my dad making a big pot of sauce with meatballs in it and my ma rolling out fresh pasta," Salerno recalls. "I remember being a little kid and being like, Oh, it doesn't look like what you find in a store.' But then learning to really appreciate that, the rustic-ness of it."
The lobster gnocchi entree ($24) exudes that same appeal, with large and slightly misshapen potato dumplings coated in a rich cream sauce with large chunks of pink lobster meat, and sweet and crunchy kernels of corn for textural contrast.
The dish is a staple of the Lago menu. It's heavy but delicious, and after eight years, it's still a No. 1 seller.
To be fair, not every moment will transport you to nonni's kitchen. The polenta Bolognese ($16), another slight variation on the traditional sauce usually served over cavatelli or spaghetti, was undeniably creamy but oversalted.
And between lackluster recommendations and oft-forgotten requests, the B Team manning the front of the house on slow nights could probably use a little more hands-on guidance on the type of service an establishment like Lago demands.
Still, it's refreshing to see new life sprouting from the Flats.
As Salerno walks me out a tall, thin young man wearing braces and athletic shorts shoots past.
"Oh! This is my oldest boy!" Salerno jumps to introduce us. "This is my son, Dominic."
"Nice to meet you," he politely replies, then soon disappears behind the elevator doors.
Like the Salerno family itself, Lago and the Flats have the foundation and room to grow.
When You GoLago, 1091 W. 10th St., Cleveland, 216-862-8065, lagoeastbank.com, Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
GOOD TO KNOW
Lago offers a late-night menu every day until 1:30 a.m., so you can still chow down on wings, warm olives, pizza or a burger once the kitchen officially closes.
The cheese plate ($16) is big enough for four to share, with generous slabs of high-quality cheeses such as imported taleggio, Parmesan and blue cheese, plus candied nuts, dried fruit and house-made compote.