Anthony Romano gets a daily reminder of why he became a chef. A framed recipe that his 7-year-old-self wrote during health class hangs near the host stand of Sarita. His mother saved the oatmeal cookie recipe — one that he demanded he make all by himself — and presented it to her son on the day his Lakewood restaurant opened in November.
“I used to help her in the kitchen when I was little,” Romano says. “I always wanted to cook. I thought it was so much fun. I would go to my grandmother’s house and make pizza dough.”
The Mentor native went on to hone his skills at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated in 1992. With stints in Key West, Florida, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., he returned to Northeast Ohio and worked at Sergio’s in University Circle for almost three years before joining the line at Players on Madison in 1999.
Sixteen years later, Romano took over ownership of Players — along with his good friend Sandra Smith — when owner Gary Lucarelli decided to retire.
The opportunity to open his own venue in a familiar spot, in a city that he’s grown fond of was just too good to pass up.
“Being at Players so long, I had a chance to see Lakewood at its strongest and watched Madison [Avenue] and storefronts go empty,” says the 44-year-old. “Now seeing it reinventing itself is a huge positive. There is nothing about Lakewood that it can’t be Tremont or Ohio City.”
Romano and Smith, who had just about a month to change over the restaurant, updated the space to reflect a more modern aesthetic. White walls brighten both the bar area and main dining room. The duo added whimsical artistic touches such as a fork-and-spoon chandelier over a wood communal table in the bar.
When creating Sarita’s menu, Romano kept some of the Players favorites while incorporating his take on New American and California-style offerings. So while the lobster nachos survived, for example, the dish recently got overhauled to just-as-delicious chorizo nachos ($12) with corn, avocado, scallions, Chihuahua cheese and a tangy lime-cumin creme fraiche. But Romano did away with Players create-your-own pasta, opting for dishes that highlight the childlike simplicity of the Ohio corn, salmon and other ingredients he’s working with.
“You know in the summer when you get a really great tomato?” he asks. “Do you really want to take that and doctor it up with a bunch of other stuff? No. The tomatoes are great by themselves. Leave them alone. Don’t do too much to them.”
Get a taste of that philosophy in the “This” portion of the menu. Here you’ll find appetizers and small plates such as fried green tomatoes ($9), two sizable slices delicately battered and fried.
Romano does just enough with wedges
of Saint Angel triple-creme cheese and a lemon-garlic vinaigrette to let the toothsome crop shine.
While he insists the technique for making the crispy chicken wings ($10) is pretty traditional, the result of his braise-before-frying trick works wonders. The meat is fall-of-the-bone tender, and the seasoned batter is fluffy and slightly sweet underneath its sweet soy-chili vinaigrette.
Probably one of the most interesting dishes on Sarita’s menu, the Navajo fry bread is a nod to Romano’s heritage: He’s Italian, Cherokee and Blackfoot Indian. He first experienced making the airy, elephant ear-like bread at CIA and now incorporates it throughout the menu.
You’ll find three flatbread-inspired versions ($6) on the popular happy hour menu. The Chippewa, for example, gets layered with spicy rock shrimp, cucumber, radishes and lime creme fraiche. On the dinner menu, he reinvents it as an appetizer ($4) with pieces of the bread cut into triangles that can be dipped in either a fresh pesto sauce or the hearty sun-dried tomato rouille.
“It’s kind of like a pizza, kind of like a taco and kind of not,” he says.
In the “That” section, there’s a classic caprese salad ($10) bright with red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, basil, balsamic and a splash of extra-virgin
olive oil. Candied pecans, dried apricots and a creamy chevre, all mixed together with tangy lemon-sherry vinaigrette, make the warm baby spinach salad ($9) a standout.
Romano has created an expansive selection of entrees in “The Other” that spans many tastes including baby back ribs ($19), corn-encrusted crab cakes ($25) and cavatelli and meatballs ($20).
A molten blue cheese encrusted beef tenderloin ($32), served with tomato-bacon jam, roasted garlic whipped potatoes and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, hits the spot for those looking for a hearty meat-and-potatoes kind of dish.
The rock shrimp gnocchi ($22) once again shows off his restraint. Pillowy pieces of pasta are tossed in a vibrant lemon cream sauce with corn, leeks and Peppadew peppers for a superb take on the season’s bounty.
Even for dishes that sound like they might be a little heavy-handed such as the hoison-braised short ribs ($26), the accompanying pineapple fried-rice, spicy glazed haricot verts and crispy wontons don’t overwhelm with too much Asian flavor. The tender meat lacquered with sauce plays off the sweetly tinged rice for a refreshing spin on short ribs.
For dessert, Romano doesn’t get too fancy. While there’s a rotating selection of mascarpone cheesecake ($7) and creme brulee ($6), don’t fret over those and order the warm olive oil cake ($7). A riff on a dessert Romano had about 20 years ago in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the moist cake — laced with a hint of orange oil and amaretto — tastes like fall with its grilled apples, berry compote and cinnamon ice cream.
It may not be an oatmeal cookie, but the cake hits our nostalgic sweet spot and shows that Romano has a knack for putting out unfussy dishes. Diners who were saddened by the closing of Players will find comfort in the familiar at Sarita but will also be pleasantly surprised at how good change can taste.
“I just wanted to be able to do my own thing, have fun with it,” Romano says. “We’re not saving lives, it’s not rocket science — it’s supposed to be fun.”
Try this: Romano has a flair for creating inventive and tasty specials centered around seasonal produce. Starting this month, look for stuffed zucchini blossoms as an appetizer special. Romano will fill the edible flowers with fontina cheese and prosciutto before dipping into batter and frying. Each order will be served with a zesty lemon aioli.
Plan ahead: Make reservations for the June 13 A to Z Wineworks wine dinner. For $75, each guest will enjoy a six-course dinner with Oregon wine pairings.