Zack Bruell embraces authentic Italian comfort food with his latest creation.
Some chefs get extra points for personality. Not Zack Bruell. He can be charming when he chooses but is better known as an opinionated and outspoken guy with little patience for small talk.
That hasn’t diminished his ability to win a large and loyal following. When it comes to creating menus and running restaurants, the man’s a master.
Parallax, Table 45 and L’Albatros — the three places he opened in the past six years — were instant hits, earning praise from diners and critics including Esquire food and travel writer John Mariani. In his latest venture, Ristorante Chinato (pronounced it kin-AH-toe), he’s done it yet again.
Like his other spots, the setting and service feature Bruell’s hallmark, stripped-down formality, a style that retains the quality of a fine dining experience without the white tablecloth pretentiousness or price tag. The dining room and bar are lovely in a spare way from elegant gauzy curtains framing big windows and faux ostrich skin upholstery to the sophisticated sepia color scheme.
Good smells waft from the open kitchen. Staff members are knowledgeable and approachable, as willing to explain that ribollita is a hearty and delicious bean and vegetable soup ($6) as crumb your table. People who take dining out seriously will feel at home here, but so will folks more interested in grabbing a bite and getting to a ballgame.
What’s totally different at Chinato is the food. Bruell says the cuisine here is his updated version of authentic rustic Italian cooking. It’s a description I think is misleading, conjuring expectations of oversized portions drenched in red sauce and cheese.
What he’s actually serving is a refined and creative interpretation of cucina povera, poor people’s comfort food, that relies on traditionally inexpensive ingredients. That’s why the menu features an appetizer of peppery sauteed chicken livers with fried shallots ($7), a meltingly tender beef tongue entree ($17) and sweetbread fritto misto ($17).
To do it right, this culinary genre requires deep understanding of technique and impeccable execution. The preparation is so simple it’s complicated. There’s no room for error, no way to hide mistakes.
Cotecchino sausage with peppers has only two elements ($16). The dish is special because Bruell’s cooks make the mild sausage seasoned with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s steamed then grilled so the meat has a soft, plush consistency. Skate wing Milanese ($18) is another satisfying study in simplicity. Easily overcooked, my deboned portion spent just long enough interacting with hot bubbling butter to bring out the fish’s natural sweetness. Croutons in the accompanying panzanella salad provided textural contrast to its soft flesh.
Bruell insists the fettuccine carbonara, with only five components — flat noodles and guanciale (cured pork jowl) both prepared in house, egg yolks and pecorino Romano — is one of the hardest dishes to make. His is a marvel. The flavors of each element pop yet come together in a creamy, crunchy, perfectly salted quintet ($8/$15).
I can’t imagine not finding something to love among the large number of selections, which won’t be changing seasonally. The array reflects Bruell’s knack for understanding what Clevelanders want. There’s a burger ($12); four small pizzas distinguished by cracker-thin crusts ($12-$15); 13 pastas, all available in half and whole portions; and meat, seafood and poultry entrees for both venturesome aficionados and those who are not. Crudo, very small plates featuring raw fish, and antipasti make great snacks and go nicely with signature cocktails such as the vodka-centric, basil-permeated Chinato Stiletto ($10).
The core — and achievement — of the wine list is the collection of Italian choices representing 19 regions, with many bottles less than $50 and some great ones, including a big juicy Salice Salentino ($10), by the glass. For a luxurious and out-of-the-ordinary finish, treat yourself to an after-dinner pour of vin santo ($13). Served with biscotti, it’s like cookies and milk for grown-ups, and dunking is highly recommended.
Scanning the room one night while finishing the last few bites of lemon polenta cake ($7), I see myself surrounded by smartly dressed people clearly having a good time. And it hits me: This place delivers the whole package — the opportunity to eat and drink exceptionally well without having to spend extravagantly. That’s the Bruell brand, and Chinato is an expression of its continuing success.
WHEN YOU GO
2079 E. Fourth St., Cleveland
Mon-Wed 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Thu & Fri 11 a.m.-midnight,
Sat 4 p.m.-midnight
Handmade potato gnocchi with
tomato, basil, toasted garlic, butter
and Parmesan ($8/$15)
For date night, reserve Table 401.
The corner spot with the L-shaped
banquette is chef Zack Bruell’s
favorite and has the best view of
the dining room.