Country Comfort 

Friendly Alessi's is a great place to unwind.

Anthony, Candy, and the Welshfield Ghost smile for - the camera. - THOM  SHERIDAN
  • Thom Sheridan
  • Anthony, Candy, and the Welshfield Ghost smile for the camera.
Lingering in a wicker rocking chair on the broad porch of the Welshfield Inn, a person can easily imagine the days when travelers came up the curved driveway in coach and buggy, seeking respite from the dusty road. There's a softness to the air out here and a brightness to the stars, reminiscent of another time, when this was farm country and the inn was a logical rest stop on the trip between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Today, of course, modern vehicles rumble down this section of State Route 422, and the Geauga County farmland is quickly giving way to houses. Still, the towering evergreens, mature hardwoods, and rolling lawns that surround this grand, circa-1840s structure do little to discourage historic imaginings.

That particular sense of time and place was part of the inn's attraction for restaurateurs Anthony and Candy Alessi, who bought this little slice of rustic tranquillity late last year and rechristened it Alessi's at the Welshfield Inn. The couple obviously have a soft spot for old buildings: Their previous restaurant, in Garrettsville, was housed in a mill dating back to 1803, so architecturally speaking, at least, they are slowly moving up to date.

The food, however, is another story. In fact, big-city diners searching for truffle oil, goat cheese, and mangos, say, may find that Alessi's wide-ranging bill of fare reads like The Menu That Time Forgot. As was the case in the Alessis' Garrettsville location, the kitchen here cooks up nothing that is terribly au courant or challenging. Nothing is vertical, pretentious, or self-conscious. Garnishes (a slice of orange, perhaps, or a bouquet of parsley) are simple. Sauces (butter, marinara, olive oil, wine) are pretty basic. And flavors are familiar, understated, and, let's be frank, occasionally wimpy. But here's a little secret known to most gourmets, and one that the Alessis clearly grasp: Sometimes, this easy, comforting style of cookery is exactly what we want to eat.

So it is that diners from the surrounding suburbs of Bainbridge, Solon, Hiram, Burton, Willoughby, Warren, and Rootstown flock here, sometimes filling every table in the inn's five meandering dining rooms. Snug and friendly, Alessi's is a place to unwind, a spot where Dockers and jeans can replace business garb; where the kids can feast on chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks; and where Grandma and Grandpa can dig into Chicken Piccata or Veal Cordon Bleu. Adding to the appeal, portions are generous and prices reasonable. It doesn't hurt, either, that world-weary diners can gaze through the windows onto an almost idyllic landscape of blossoming lilacs, cavorting bunnies, and cardinals clinging to tree branches like apples.

Despite Tony Alessi's Mediterranean roots, food choices go beyond routine Italian-restaurant rations, with plenty of seafood, steaks, and chops supplementing the expected pasta dishes. All entrées are package deals, with bread, a decent tossed salad (try the mellow hot-bacon dressing), and a choice of sides. However, if, among this largess, appetizers still seem like a necessity, go for the plump, tasty mussels, steamed in a savory white wine sauce and redolent of fresh garlic. Three of us made short work of a baker's dozen one night, then used hunks of the restaurant's warm, soft bread to sop up the remaining juices.

As memorable as those mussels were, a shrimp cocktail, with six large but vaguely limp crustaceans, turned out to be merely average. And a starter of breaded, deep-fried sauerkraut-and-bacon balls was simply so-so, with a pleasant tanginess but no noticeable tweak of bacon for balance. Adding to the yawn factor was the too-mild cocktail sauce that came with both of these dishes: Blandly pedestrian, it needed a more generous dollop of horseradish to perk it up. And finally, a roasted portobello mushroom cap, topped with thin slices of out-of-season tomato and a bit of characterless provolone, also induced a shrug. Not even a generous application of salt and spoonfuls of the accompanying marinara were enough to make this little fungus come to life.

However, our taste buds had reason to rouse themselves again, once we moved on to the entrées. Grilled tenderloin DiAmico, faintly perfumed with olive oil, basil, oregano, and garlic, was thick, beefy, and almost fork-tender, and had been prepared, as ordered, to a lush medium-rare. On the side, a coarsely chopped red onion and tomato salad, almost like a salsa fresca, would have been killer if tomatoes had been in season, but even with hothouse produce, the salad added texture and depth to the already well-seasoned steak. Likewise, an ample filet of cilantro-crusted, pan-seared salmon was all bright and buttery: perfectly cooked and intelligently paired with a satiny, almost vibrant peppercorn-dill sauce, with a few stalks of broccoli on the side.

Prime rib is available on Friday and Saturday only, and is enormously popular. Our own massive plank of the well-marbled beef -- and this was the petite cut -- arrived at the table properly pink and juicy, and while a little cup of horseradish cream would have made a nice go-with, the flavor was savory enough that it didn't demand enhancements. Among the seven side-dish possibilities, we judged the dryish rice pilaf to be unremarkable; the crisp Italian homefries, with onions and green peppers, to be above average; and the smooth, aromatic mashed sweet potatoes, wafting up clouds of cinnamon and spice, to be like happy Christmas memories gathered on a plate.

While entrées include a large selection of pasta dishes, neither of the two that we tried (penne with green peppers, mushrooms, and spinach, and a veggie-studded Fettuccine Primavera) was especially lively. In both cases, the pasta was cooked a bit beyond al dente, and the sauces (marinara on the former, cream sauce on the latter), while passable, lacked much in the way of sparkle.

Alessi's wine list is an extensive collection of mostly moderately priced Californian and French vintages; the restaurant also serves beer, cocktails, and several liqueur-spiked dessert drinks.

At meal's end, our efficient, down-to-earth waitress appeared with a tray laden with a mix of homemade and commercial cakes, pies, and cheesecakes. A three-layer chocolate cake was fresh-tasting and moist, if not especially dense. Tiramisu was light-textured and flavorful, if not particularly moist. But homemade chocolate mousse was an all-around winner, piled into two cupcake-sized chocolate cups and finished with whipped cream and a mint-chocolate reception stick. Smooth, rich, but neither too sweet nor too heavy, the mousse, along with mugs of robust coffee, brought dinner to a sweet conclusion.

Rumor has it that the Welshfield Inn is haunted, and under duress, certain staffers will reluctantly allow that they have had encounters with the resident wraith. According to our sources, there has been a time or two when workers have heard an otherworldly woman's voice beseeching them, "Don't go!" That may or may not be a true story. But it is true that, settled down in those porch rockers, with full tummies and a soft spring breeze ruffling our hair, we weren't in any hurry to leave.

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