'Twas a dark and stormy night -- honestly! -- at Piatto Novo, veteran chef Roger Thomas' new spot overlooking the river in Cuyahoga Falls, yet the view from the windowside table couldn't have been more spectacular. Javelins of lightning ripped through the black cotton-ball sky above, while the mighty Cuyahoga lashed its stony banks below, bucking and twisting beneath the burden of the deluge.
If there is a dining room in the area with a more dramatic view than this, we haven't found it. Even on temperate evenings, when sunlight flows through the towering windows like Grand Marnier over ice, the tableau of river, trees, and rocks seems as mesmerizing as the finest food and drink.
As it happens, the kitchen mostly keeps up, delivering imaginative Italian cuisine that, at its best, fairly bursts with round, smooth flavors. The trim, well-organized menu is likely to seem familiar to fans of Thomas' previous restaurant, downtown Akron's Piatto. When that spot shuttered last October, Thomas scarcely had time to fold the linens before moving on to the nearby Sheraton Suites, where he set about remodeling the hotel's former RiverFront Restaurant, reworking the bill of fare, and developing Novo, the sexy, sophisticated cocktail lounge adjacent to the restaurant.
Beginning in late winter, Piatto Novo entered an extended "soft opening" phase; as the transition progressed, menus have been more or less finalized, guests have been welcomed, and press releases have been issued. Despite the leisurely gearing up, though, the restaurant is still a work in progress, admits Thomas. And indeed, when we visited in late May, enough rough spots remained to leave a meticulous diner scratching her head in dismay.
Ranging from the trifling to the infuriating, those glitches included dried-out focaccia in the bread basket; limp, past-their-prime greens in the side salads; items -- including an otherwise delicious diver's-scallop starter -- served barely lukewarm; an overcooked pork entrée; and, perhaps most tiresome of all, the soporific pacing that caused 75 minutes to elapse before our entrées finally appeared.
And yet it's impossible not to relish the parts of the experience that Thomas and his staff get right: the handsome decor, the classy tabletop appointments, the sincere servers, and, yes, the food. Take the starter of fiery roasted banana peppers, stuffed with apricot-flecked risotto and settled on a bright, balanced marinara. The combo of heat, sweet, and a gentle, sun-drenched tartness made this an ideal app, with the capacity to hone each and every taste bud to razor sharpness.
While a macho companion happily sweated his way through the peppers, I chose the mellower goat-cheese terrine, a tidy little dome of imported chèvre, bisected by slabs of sweet, roasted red pepper and served with triangles of olive-bread toast. Of course, we shared; as it turned out, the two appetizers shared a perfect harmony, the roasted banana peppers adding some sassy yang to the terrine's more gentle yin. A toss of baby arugula, lightly stroked in red-wine vinaigrette, contributed earthy oomph to the goat cheese; it would have been much nicer, though, if the greens hadn't been so yellow.
An enticing-sounding assortment of pastas, grains, and meats makes up the main events. (Fish and seafood typically show up as daily specials, to ensure freshness.) Still, who would choose walleye over tender homemade cannelloni, filled with ricotta, spinach, and basil; or firm penne al costate, dotted with bits of braised beef short ribs and caramelized onion, and slathered in a sleek, peppery Chianti-and-tomato reduction? Well, not this paisano, for one.
Still, it would be hard to imagine anything more satisfying than the beef costoletta, a well-marbled bone-in rib steak, served with grilled redskin potatoes, onions, and satiny sautéed spinach. Cooked as ordered to a lush, buttery rare, the steak delivered as honest a beefy punch as any carnivore could desire.
Unfortunately, we didn't fare so well with an order of pork lonza. Ordered medium rare, it arrived at the table closer to medium well and was predictably dry. Roasted carrots and summer squash, on the side, offered wholesome flavor, but not much imagination; less enchanting still, they were barely room temperature.
To finish, cheesecake, tiramisu, and -- best of all -- silken panna cotta, infused with deep vanilla essences, fill the bill. Sided with a stack of crisp homemade biscotti, the panna cotta was sweet recompense for other, less charming aspects of our visits -- including the tepid cappuccinos that came with it.
Meantime, the lightning flashed, the thunder roared, and the river frothed and foamed beneath us. It was a thrilling sight. Let's hope that someday soon, dining at Piatto Novo will be as consistently exciting as the view.
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