Giovanna's on Clifton is a comfy, neighborhood Italian restaurant with a difference. Owners Nick and Giovanna Kustala have achieved most of the best characteristics of a great neighborhood spot: a cozy ambiance, friendly service and gentle prices. Happily, at the same time they've avoided most of the culinary and atmospheric clichÃ©s that afflict too many neighborhood Italian eateries. You won't get gargantuan servings of overcooked pasta swimming in an ocean of leaden red sauce while Muzak assails your ears with the theme from "The Godfather." Instead, you'll find a restaurant that offers some old favorites, handled with great skill and care, plus a number of innovative and challenging dishes that you might associate with high-powered — and high-priced — destination restaurants. Flavors are big, portions are generous and the value quotient is generally high.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a 1920s-vintage apartment building on Clifton at West 104th Street in Cleveland. The space has housed a number of restaurants, some of them quite good, over the years: Wilsher Grille, La Pomme, jeso and, most recently, Mise. Nick Kustala waves off any talk of a "jinxed" location.
"Most of the places that occupied this space really did quite well," he says, "as long as they stayed put and didn't price themselves out of the neighborhood. We'll continue to do well as long as we offer extraordinary food at everyday prices."
The Kustalas are no novices on the local restaurant scene. He was chef at Mallory Park in Brunswick and Gavi's in Willoughby, and the couple operated Lure in Bratenahl Place before opening Lure Bistro in Willoughby, then acquiring Giovanna's on Clifton. Paul Haravanik, who worked with the Kustalas at Bratenahl Place, was hired as top chef.
The couple made few changes to the interior, which is divided into a bar and two dining rooms. Decor is simple and attractive with midnight-blue velvet booths, bare black tabletops and handsome, art deco-style flatware. Floral swags and gilt-framed mirrors adorn the walls.
At press time, the restaurant didn't have a full liquor license, so stick with wine or beer. A number of "house martinis," all made with low-proof vodka, are offered. Wines sold by the glass, mostly Italian, range in price from $5.50 to $8. Most full bottles will set you back $22 to $30.
Appetizers generally avoid the ordinary and are very nicely executed. On one recent outing, we sampled Giovanna's carpaccio (at $9.95, the costliest item on the appetizer menu). Giovanna's presents carpaccio (named for the Renaissance painter famous for his abundant use of red pigments) on a gorgeous glass platter big enough to crowd most of one of the restaurant's rather small tabletops. Melt-in-the-mouth filet of beef is cut into see-through-thin slices and served raw with a drizzle of excellent olive oil, a whiff of truffle oil and a topping of field greens, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar completes this outstanding dish. Each bite is a surprise and a delight as the many complementary flavors and textures unroll in the mouth like a scroll. Nick confides that he proposed to Giovanna over a platter of carpaccio at one of their favorite Chicago restaurants — confirmed bachelors be forewarned.
Beans are a staple of the Italian diet (especially in Tuscany) and yet they are rarely found on the menus of Italian-American restaurants. Giovanna's corrects that oversight with a splendid starter of Greens and Beans ($8.95) that is sometimes available as a special of the day. If you're lucky enough to find it, you'll get a serving of sweet, tender and creamy cannellini beans swimming in their own broth, set off by a generous addition of blanched escarole that provides just enough pleasantly bitter contrast to the velvety blandness of the beans. The whole mixture is served on slices of good crusty, country bread. It's a great starter that — with its blending of proteins, carbs and greens — could even make for an excellent, well-balanced meal.
Another appetizing standout is Paul's mussels (named for chef Haravanik). Plump mussels, as good as you'll find anywhere in town, are served up in a broth sweetened with a purÃ©e of root vegetables, cream and a dash of anise-flavored Sambucca liqueur. The generous bowlful of bivalves arrives at your table steaming hot, filling your nose with the invigorating aromas of herbs, vegetables and the sea. At $7.95, this portion could, with the addition of a salad and a bit of bread to mop up the luscious juices, serve as an entree for a diner with a small appetite.
About the only appetizer that didn't leave us humming contentedly was the pizza. Two varieties are offered: Giovanna's, topped with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto ham; and Nick's, topped with Italian sausage and onions (both $8.95). We found the crust too thick and soft — even a tad undercooked — and thought a longer sojourn in the oven would have developed more crispness.
The restaurant recently added an Italian-style antipasto bar to its roster of appetizers. The selection includes a number of crostini (little toasts with various savory toppings), cured meats, cheeses and olives. Crostini are just $1 each; cheeses range from $2.99 to $7.95 for housemade mozzarella. There's also a selection of carpaccio-style platters including beef, prosciutto and tuna sashimi.
The kitchen manages to coax big flavors out of all its pasta dishes. House made cavatelli, for example, are not the doughy "sinkers" that have given this dish a bad name in too many bad restaurants. Giovanna's cavatelli ($12.95) are made with a light and fluffy ricotta dough and cooked perfectly al dente. They're served with a delicious, perfectly flavored tomato-basil marinara sauce and (the menu claims) "99" miniature veal meatballs. We didn't count them, but there were indeed more of the little delights than any in our party could eat in a single sitting. Other pastas include angel hair with a seafood and tomato sauce ($14.95), and cheese ravioli in Alfredo sauce with spinach and artichoke hearts ($13.95).
Entrees are beautifully presented and offered in generous portions. Chicken saltimbocca ($14.95) was a standout. The chicken breast was cooked perfectly, moist and tender, topped with slices of prosciutto and flavored with fresh sage. Perfectly seasoned garlic mashed potatoes — gently perfumed with garlic, not overwhelmed by it — and sautÃ©ed field greens completed this satisfying dish.
Seafood lovers should try the grouper: a healthy chunk of very fresh fish swathed in chopped spinach and sautÃ©ed to perfection ($18.95). Beurre blanc scented with lemoncello liqueur accompanies the dish. Filet of beef surprised and delighted us with its crunchy crust of finely ground espresso coffee beans. Cooked to rosy precision, medium-rare as ordered, it was served with a balsamic reduction ($18.95). Both the grouper and the filet are presented with the same sides, which vary with the season and availability. One night, we were lucky to find flawlessly roasted fresh asparagus and a beautiful risotto cake — golden brown, crunchy on the outside and creamy within.
If you're a fan of osso buco (braised veal shanks) make your pilgrimage to Giovanna's on Thursday night. The restaurant turns out an estimable version of this Italian classic in an extraordinarily rich sauce of root vegetables and pan juices, and serves it with the traditional accompaniment of risotto ($15.95). After a brief winter hiatus, Kustala promises the dish will reappear as a regular Thursday special in the spring.
Desserts are not a big deal here. They're good, but there aren't many from which to choose. You'll usually find a respectable molten chocolate cake topped with Nutella (the Italian version of peanut butter made with hazelnuts and chocolate) and paired with vanilla ice cream. There's also usually a fruit-based alternate that varies with the availability and quality of seasonal fruit. One night it might be poached pears, another night chocolate-dipped strawberries. Desserts are all priced at about $5.
Coffee service is a real treat. Your server will make coffee to order, tableside, using Illy CaffÃ© (Italy's best) and a French press coffee pot. It's outstanding.
Giovanna's on Clifton, 10427 Clifton Blvd., Cleveland., (216) 631-3463. Hours: Tue-Sat 5 - 11 p.m. Park on Clifton or on the side streets (the lot behind the building is for tenants only). Free valet parking is provided Fri and Sat. Both the dining room and the restrooms are located on the ground floor.