Like fine wine, the best restaurants get even better over time. For Molinari's (8900 Mentor Ave., 440- 974-2750, molinaris.com), its 25 years in Mentor have been marked by an evolution of space and a constant adaption to the currents.
Owner and executive chef Randal Johnson thought his restaurant days were behind him when he opened Molinari's Food and Wine retail store in 1991. After managing a West Coast bed and breakfast and working in restaurants in the Caribbean, New York and back home in Cleveland, he was a family man ready for a more leisurely pace. It didn't last long.
Johnson taught regular cooking classes at the store, during which his students pleaded with him to open a restaurant. As fate would have it, among those attendees happened to be an architect and a construction worker. Six months later, Molinari's had a 26-seat dining room dropped into its center and Johnson was back to his magic.
The business continued to grow. Today, Molinari's has 150 seats in a black-and-white dining room and banquet hall, an expansive Italian-inspired menu with 10 or more daily specials and 250 wine selections.
Wine, of course, is Johnson's first love. Before transferring to the Culinary Institute of America, he was a student at Miami University majoring in biology in order to learn how to make wine. That passion began at the age of 16 when an older coworker gave him a bottle of whiskey. His parents confiscated the liquor, telling him that they'd buy him a bottle of wine each month instead. He could research his choices and by the time he was of age, they promised, he'd have his own wine cellar.
"So I bought Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine and it was fascinating," says Johnson. "There are thousands of wines in the world and they're always changing. And the homework is good: You get to taste wine."
While the impressive wine selection at Molinari's remains, much else has changed in the past quarter century, both at the restaurant and in the Cleveland dining scene. Unsure how his local, seasonal menu would be accepted in the early '90s, Johnson equipped his servers with expertise.
"In the beginning, I trained my staff and reminded them you can go anywhere and get great food and great service," Johnson explains. "If we can give people knowledge, we can teach them about a new product or new wine, that's going to bring people back. We still have that philosophy today."
Many on that staff have remained with the restaurant for more than a decade. That includes Dominic Clause, Johnson's sous chef, who started at Molinari's as a dish washer 10 years ago.
Menu standbys include Veal Four Seasons with prosciutto, roasted peppers and artichoke hearts. Johnson's quest for the freshest seafood, a mission intensified by his time in the Caribbean, is frequently showcased through fish dishes.
Five years ago, he made room in his floorplan for a stone oven for pizza, which glows in the corner by the bar.
"People perceive Molinari's as a very high-end restaurant," he says. "To give us a broader appeal, I thought it could be a nice adjunct idea. And people loved it."
The restaurant's name comes from the Italian word for a person who works in a grain mill. Just as millers often were the anchor of a community, leading its surroundings to prosper, Molinari's will remain an enduring piece of Cleveland's culinary rise.
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