Fettucine, lasagna, cavatelli, maybe even a cannoli for dessert — those are the mouthwatering dishes that have made Little Italy a dining destination. But for many who live in the Cleveland neighborhood, that’s not always what they want when they dine out.
Dominic Gogol, who grew up down the street from iconic spots such as Guarino’s and Mama Santa’s, is living proof.
“Italians don’t go out and eat the Italian food they eat at home,” he says. “So a group of us got together and said, Where can we make a place that has burgers and fries and things of that nature?”
The result is Tavern of Little Italy, a neighborhood gastropub that opened in mid-January right across from spots such as La Dolce Vita and Mia Bella.
Tucked away in the old Mayfield Cafe spot, which was most recently home to a barber college, the space has been updated inside and out. New glass doors have been installed out front, while a pair of garage doors on the side open up to a sliver of a cozy patio.
The interior gives off an inviting, yet industrial vibe — more barlike than fine dining — with an expansive 30-foot bar top decked out with perforated steel plate and a cool beer tap made out of a water pipe. Red walls and wood accents make it feel warm and cozy.
While the space isn’t huge — a few wooden tabletops line the perimeter of the bar area while others hunker down in a back room — the crowd that gathers here are regulars that come more for drinks than dinner. You’ll be among friends who walk over after a bocce match at the Alta House or longtime residents looking to catch up with a drink after work.
They’re all here because they enjoy the company, camaraderie and companionship Tavern of Little Italy has managed to establish in a mere seven months.
As supporters of the new neighborhood establishment, it’s easy for them to be more relaxed and forgiving of the less-than-stellar service we experienced during our meals.
Aside from a flustered wait staff mixing up drink orders and forgetting to bring fresh silverware for the table, our dishes took an excruciatingly long time to come out of the kitchen and then arrived cold.
While repeat customers or those just casually hanging out at the bar might not mind longer-than-appropriate wait times, those driving in from the suburbs or used to top-notch service might take issue.
The answer to these easy-to-fix problems stems from the lack of leadership in the kitchen. The original chef, who developed the menu of small plates, flatbreads, sandwiches and entrees, recently left. Gogol has brought in chef Daniel McQuiston, the executive sous chef at Jimmy’s Restaurant in Painesville, to help reorganize and revamp the offerings. Gogol hopes to bring on a fulltime executive chef soon.
But the menu has many things going for it. Though small, it does have wide appeal — and even nods here and there to its Italian roots.
The deep-fried spaghetti-in-meatballs ($12) is a modern marvel of Italian fare — and something we pray makes it through this transitional period.
In a radical reverse of spaghetti and meatballs, you’ll find al dente pasta in the center when you cut into each of the two massive orbs. Be sure to scoop up a bite with the tangy marinara sauce, basil and Parmesan topping to get all of the delicious flavors working in harmony.
Those looking for more traditional bar food won’t be disappointed by the tavern wings ($10), cooked twice before receiving a dry rub of spices and a douse of fiery sauce, or the grilled chicken tacos ($10) paired with a red cabbage slaw, lime crema and cilantro that stand up to any local taco joint.
You can’t go wrong with one of Tavern of Little Italy’s rotating flatbreads. There’s your usual suspects such as the margherita ($11), made with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and Parmesan and the Hawaiian ($11), a tropical breeze with barbecue sauce, grilled chicken, green peppers, red onions, pineapple, cheddar and bacon.
But expand your foodie horizons and opt for the devils on horseback ($12), a playful spin on the hors d’oeuvre. This variation starts with a layer of bacon jam that gets topped with crumbled chorizo and goat cheese, chopped dates and almond slivers. Each piece is loaded with ingredients, making each bite a salty-sweet slice of heaven.
Burger lovers will find comfort in two simple options here. The classic tavern burger ($10) with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, pickles and your choice of cheese doesn’t scream creativity but it doesn’t falter either.
The more adventurous herbed goat cheese burger ($12) sounds good in theory with crumbles of herbed goat cheese and bacon jam. But the flavors fall flat.
For another taste of Italy, dive into the cioppino ($16). The stew is a fisherman’s catch with hunks of fresh shrimp, calamari and mussels delicately cooked and simmered in a robust spicy tomato and wine sauce. A crusty piece of ciabatta bread lets guests soak up each last drop.
While the flat iron steak ($18) seemed small in portion size, it was tender, juicy and benefited from a sun-dried tomato aioli. But the accompanying cauliflower bake was the star of the dish. Crunchy and golden brown on the edges, these tender stalks bathed in a mild cheese sauce remind us of all those hearty casseroles our mom used to serve for Sunday dinners.
With the support of its loyal customers and a prime historic location, the Tavern of Little Italy should be able to easily overcome the few kinks that need to be worked out once a new chef steps into the kitchen. We suspect the spot will become just as popular as the other restaurants that have made the neighborhood a foodie haven in Cleveland.
Try This: Like at any good gastropub, you’ll have plenty of drinking possibilities. The strong craft beer list includes 15 rotating frothy drafts such Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Aged Ale ($7) and bottles such as the tangerine-tinged Hop Nosh Tangerine IPA ($5). Want to mix it up? Try one of five craft cocktails such as the Oracle ($9), swirled with bourbon, suze (French bitters) and vermouth over rocks.
Seating Chart: Enjoy the balmy summer night with two outdoor spaces: the tiny side patio, which lets you still be part of the bar scene, or the more intimate sidewalk tables.
Sun-Wed 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Thu-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
12117 Mayfield Road, Cleveland, 216-331-1069, tavernoflittleitaly.com