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Christmas Is Served 

Break out of the holiday rut with a gourmet gift, Cleveland-style.

Give it up for local talent: Troves of specialty gifts are produced right in our own backyard. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Give it up for local talent: Troves of specialty gifts are produced right in our own backyard.
Lose the Harry and David catalog, the Santa potholders, and the six-pack of Natty Lite topped with a stick-on bow. We know what the gourmets on your holiday gift list really want this year, and we've found it at prices that range from naughty to very nice. Best of all, everything draws heavily on Northeast Ohio's bountiful culinary resources -- chefs, farmers, brewers, authors, shopkeepers, and others with hometown ties.

Romance for Two
Dinner prepared in your home by Chef Brian Doyle
(Approximately $300, depending on the menu)
Light the fire, turn on the Sinatra, and settle in with your Snuggle Bunny for an evening of culinary pampering. For a fraction of what your heating bill is bound to cost, personal chef Brian Doyle -- former honcho at hot spots like Lure Bistro and the Fulton -- can warm up your love life with a sumptuous five- to seven-course feast for two, filled with festive flavors, imaginative preparations, and sassy global accents. Lobster lollipops, anyone? Kiev-inspired roasted free-range chicken? Peppercorn-seared duck breast with beet infusion? All are among Doyle's recent specialties, just a sampling of what he could put on your plate. Count on devoting at least two hours to dining; how you spend the rest of the night is your business. Contact Doyle at World's Fare Culinary, 440-622-5071, or visit www.worldsfareculinary.com.

Lavender Delight
Herbal gift baskets from Daybreak Lavender Farm
($96.60)
Self-styled "aging hippies" Jody Byrne and Michael Slyker operate a Streetsboro farm teeming with fields of lavender that, until recently, had been harvested mostly for use in Byrne's handcrafted soaps and oils. In the past few months, though, Byrne has found herself increasingly drawn to the herb's gourmet possibilities, experimenting with various infusions, blends, and mixes. Her preoccupation has resulted in a line of fragrant comestibles, gathered into a whopper of a gift basket that she calls "The Taste of Lavender" -- aka "the full-tilt Provençal boogie." There's lavender-infused honey, lavender-scented sugar, and organic lavender tea, as well as jasmine pearl tea and a trio of gourmet salt blends. The basket's most mouthwatering assets, however, are the lavender-infused baking mixes: one for shortbreadlike tea cookies, the other for a dark chocolate torte that contains eight full ounces of Ghirardelli chocolate and a lovely herbal aroma. To see the farm's full line of handcrafted lavender products, visit www.soap-please.com.

Cold Comfort
Gift box of Mitchell's homemade ice creams
($75; $115 for out-of-state delivery)
Entrepreneurial brothers Pete and Mike Mitchell have been cranking out the region's finest small-batch gourmet ice cream for nearly six years, with contemporary, year-round parlors in Solon, Westlake, Rocky River, and Beachwood. But until recently, out-of-towners were out of luck when it came to savoring the Mitchells' confections. That's all changed, this holiday: You can now order pints by the eight-pack -- in any combination of flavors, including seasonal faves like pumpkin spice, peppermint stick, cinnamon, and eggnog -- and have them shipped in dry ice in a reusable cooler to anywhere in the Continental U.S. To order, visit any of the store locations, or call 440-333-4563.

Intro to Vino
Gift certificates from the Cleveland Wine School
($50 and up)
Give a lady a bottle of wine, and she'll drink for an evening. Give her a gift certificate for the Cleveland Wine School, and she'll drink in the wisdom for a lifetime. That's the great thing about wine, after all: There's always something new to learn. Blessedly, wine expert Marianne Frantz and her staff manage to make the lessons informative and insightful while whittling the intimidation factor to a nub. Available in multiples of $50, gift certificates can be used toward classes like "Understanding Pinot Noir" and "Bubbles 101." For the ultimate present, pay her way into the Epicurean Event coming up on March 7, an indulgent five-course feast matched with French wines from Château Cos d'Estournel, presented by winemaker Jean-Guillaume Pratts. At $135 per person, this gift is strictly for good little gourmets. To order, call the wine school at 216-295-9583 or visit http://clevelandwineschool.com.

Yummy Page-Turners
Books by Michael Ruhlman
($15 to $50)
We may not have Napa Valley's famous French Laundry restaurant, but at least we've got the guy who wrote the book on it: author, chef, and Cleveland native Michael Ruhlman. His rep as a top-drawer food writer places him among the country's culinary elite; his output of tasty texts includes not only the award-winning French Laundry Cookbook (1999, with Thomas Keller and Susie Heller), but half a dozen other volumes that pay loving homage to food, cooking, and the pleasures of the table. In particular, Ruhlman's 2000 book, The Soul of a Chef, dishes up fascinating insight on the local food scene, with a focus on Tremont's Lola Bistro (now Lolita) and its chef-owner Michael Symon. Stick a Lolita gift certificate inside, and watch your loved one drool. For those who know their way around the kitchen, Ruhlman's newest cookbook, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (with Brian Polcyn), offers enticing recipes for homemade bacon, sausages, terrines, confits, and more, in prose so rich it should require a doctor's orders. Available at amazon.com and at local bookstores.

When Ice Is Nice
2003 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine From Ferrante Winery
(Approximately $29 for a 375-ml bottle)
Rare, exotic, and completely dependent upon the whims of weather, ice wine is a delicious reminder that nature's bounty doesn't end with the last days of summer. In fact, the delicate honeyed flavor of this lush dessert wine is the direct result of allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine during early frosts -- a process that concentrates their natural sugars, yielding a product as scarce as it is expensive. In our book, the best Ohio ice wine comes from Ferrante Winery in Ashtabula County. With a bouquet of apricots and orange blossoms, and flavors of honey, melon, and brown sugar, the 2003 Vidal Blanc seems custom-made to leave a sweet holiday impression. Order online at www.ferrantewinery.com for Ohio delivery only, or pick up a few bottles at the winery gift store, 5585 State Route 307 in Harpersfield Township (440-466-8466). It's also available at most Heinen's and Giant Eagle locations, as well as many independent wine stores.

Chocolate Bunnies
MarieBelle Pinup Girl Chocolate From Isola Bella
($15)
Every guy on our shopping list is getting one of these ultra-sexy Pin-Up Girl chocolate bars, made by SoHo chocolatier MarieBelle. Outside, the high-quality, heavy-weight wrapper features one of a dozen sexy, Albert Vargas-style pinup girls in various stages of undress; inside, almost four ounces of decadently rich, extraordinarily creamy Belgian chocolate deliver on the package's provocative promise. Strictly speaking, the chocolate doesn't have an Ohio connection; but Isola Bella, a one-of-a-kind boutique and café in Woodmere, does happen to be the sole Midwest distributor. Check out the chocolate bars and a heavenly host of other gift ideas at the store in the Atrium Shoppes at Eton-Chagrin Boulevard (216-464-7500).

A Tradition Brewing
Christmas Ale From Great Lakes Brewing Company
($10 per six-pack; $43 per case)
Mr. Jingeling, Francis the Talking Mule, and the ginormous tree in the center of Sterling-Lindner-Davis may be just sweet memories, but when it comes to holiday traditions, this city still rocks. For proof, look no further than the brouhaha raised each year by the release of Great Lakes' seasonal ale, a bright amber beer boasting a feast of holiday flavors -- cinnamon, ginger, and honey -- which makes a fine companion for stews, roasts, sausages, and other hearty winter fare. Snag a six-pack or a case at Great Lakes' Ohio City gift store, next door to the pub (2516 Market Avenue; 216-771-4404). If you're feeling generous, throw in a framed Christmas Ale poster, a bottle-opener key ring, and a set of decorated snifters. The beer is also stocked at many Heinen's, Giant Eagles, and neighborhood beverage stores.

Life of the Party
Customized cocktail parties catered by Chef Donna Chriszt
(Approximately $20 to $100 per person, depending on the menu)
When it comes to craftsmanship, few can match the work of award-winning chef Donna Chriszt, a culinarian with an artist's eye and an instinctive talent for uncovering the wow factor in every dish. A veteran of several top Cleveland kitchens, she's been tapped by Bon Appetit as one of the country's "hip young chefs" and been invited to cook at the prestigious Beard House in New York City. Her newest endeavor, Immaculate Reception Catering, places those talents at your disposal for a customized, in-home cocktail party as lavish or as streamlined as your budget allows. We ain't talking skewered chicken chunks here: Chriszt's signature style runs more toward lobster pizza, oyster shooters, or seared scallops with ginger foam served on tiny Asian-style plates. Not only will she and her staff handle all the cooking, bar service, and cleanup, but she can also bring the ambiance, with flowers, candlelight, and all the elegant table appointments needed to make your party pop. For more information, contact Chriszt at 216-288-9094 or at IRCatering@hotmail.com.

Get Sauced
Gourmet pasta sauces from 'Stino da Napoli
(Approximately $8 per 25-ounce jar)
When his customers speak, chef-restaurateur Agostino Iacullo listens . . . and then figures out how to package his signature pasta sauces for home use. Iacullo, owner of Rocky River's perennially popular 'Stino da Napoli trattoria, now sells his bottled sauces in five different flavors: sweet-tart Filetto de Pomodoro, spicy Arrabbiata, prosciutto-piqued Ferdinando II, bright Carrettiera, and -- our fave -- the smoky Fumo del Vesuvio, seasoned with bacon and cream. Subtle, delicate, yet remarkably rich, any one of the sauces could easily form the basis of a fabulous holiday dinner. Better yet, pair up jars of sauces with fresh Ohio City Pastas for an Italian-accented taste of Cleveland at its gourmet best. Sauces are available at 'Stino da Napoli (19070 Detroit Road in Rocky River; 440-331-3940), Gallucci's Italian Foods (6610 Euclid Avenue; 216-881-0045), and many area Giant Eagle locations, including Westlake and Legacy Village. For Ohio City Pasta, visit stand E-3 (216-241-5444) at the West Side Market, on the corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue.

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