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Crazy for Meze 

OPA! does little food in big ways.

Lenny LoRusso says the Waterhouse will thrive. - Recent history suggests otherwise.
  • Lenny LoRusso says the Waterhouse will thrive. Recent history suggests otherwise.
Hors d'oeuvres, canapés, tapas, or meze: Whatever you call the little eats, they've developed a jumbo following among Cleveland diners, and for obvious reasons: Nibble on two or three with a glass of wine or a cocktail, and it's a sophisticated start to a night on the town; settle in with friends for an evening of grazing, and it's a trendy dinner. Either way, they deliver a lot of gustatory punch for a relatively small outlay of cash -- and calories.

Dimitris Ragousis, chef-owner of OPA! on 25th (1834 West 25th Street, 216-272-2570), is the latest culinarian to tune in to tapas. His Tuesday-night meze menu features everything from a cranberry-ancho-sauced baby lamb chop ($4) to a miniature ice-cream sampler, with diminutive scoops of ouzo vanilla, chocolate kumquat, and pomegranate ice creams ($3). Better still: Order any two mezes, and get a glass of Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc on the house.

Other popular noshes include a trio of mini-crabcakes with roasted red-pepper cream ($3.50), scallop ceviche served with arugula pesto and mango chutney ($4), and pita pizzas, with toppings that range from braised lamb and kasseri to rosemary-infused caramelized peppers with blue cheese ($4). Sweet options range from lemon-lime tarts in mini-phyllo cups ($3) to orange-blossom baklava ($3) and OPA! Apricots dipped in white chocolate and toasted coconut ($3).

Ragousis says meze night, which he launched in mid-March, has been so well received that he's had to turn some visitors away for lack of space in his tiny dining room. The meze menu is in force from 5 to 10 p.m. every Tuesday; for more hearty eaters, OPA!'s regular menu of contemporary Greek-inspired fare is also available.

Maybe four's the charm . . . Checking in at nearly 25,000 square feet, the labyrinthine space at 728 Prospect Avenue in downtown's Gateway neighborhood practically reeks with restaurant potential. Too bad none of its past occupants -- the Diamondback Brewery, Barons, and Phil the Fire -- knew how to profitably exploit it.

That may change when the Waterhouse opens in the space next month. According to operating manager Lenny LoRusso, success simply requires vision, experience, connections, and capital -- and he says that he and his Atlanta-based partners have all that and more.

"It's a great space to work with," LoRusso said during a recent walk-through, "and we've opened up plenty of restaurants. We know what to look for -- the traps, the tricks, the do's and the don'ts -- and we hope to bring that all to bear here."

Plans call for turning the main floor of the rambling structure into a casually upscale, 180-seat dining room, comfortable enough for the Levi's crowd, but sleek enough for business meetings. Walls are to be repainted, lighting will be replaced, and an outdoor dining area will be installed at the building's Huron Road entrance, all in time for a mid-May opening.

Entrées on the moderately priced menu will be tagged at $16 or less, LoRusso says, and will focus on fish, seafood, and freshly made pasta (interviews for an exec chef and GM are under way). Among all the other usual options, the full bar will feature a 100-bottle international wine list. Except for a group of reserve wines, every bottle will be priced at $20.

A second phase of renovation, scheduled for completion by late summer, will rework the upstairs space into a banquet room and members-only club.

LoRusso and his family have opened restaurants in Manhattan and San Francisco; his brother, Antonio, is managing partner for the Waterhouse. A second location is slated for Atlanta by the end of summer.

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More by Elaine T. Cicora

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