I hadn't been inside Ponte Vecchio more than 30 seconds before I knew my cover was blown. Then again, even with all the usual subterfuge, it was to be expected. Restaurateur Marco Rossi is one of the best hosts in the biz -- gracious, charming, and completely tuned into his clientele -- and it probably would have taken some serious nip-and-tuck for me to duck past him unrecognized, when I showed up to review his newest and most ambitious project to date.
I had succeeded in flying below his radar the first time I encountered him, in 2001, when he was serving as host and maitre d' at the Warehouse District's Osteria de Valerio and Al, and last year I slipped by him more or less unrecognized when I reviewed Aroma, in Avon Lake, which he then co-owned with chef Mario Marotta. But clearly, on this night I had finally exhausted my supply of anonymity: The tall, suave Roman and his enchanting accent were at my elbow, even before our waiter had finished reciting the short list of the evening's specials.
So yes, I got special attention during my recent visits to Ponte Vecchio, but let's keep it in perspective. Under Rossi's roof, everyone is special, and the man would be no more capable of ignoring a guest than he would be of slighting his own mother. The result is that everyone, at least occasionally, feels like the guest of honor. Or, as a slightly envious male companion put it: "The guy not only flirts with every woman in here, he darn near flirts with their boyfriends, too!"
Great as it is to feel loved, though, visitors find that Ponte Vecchio has more going for it than merely Rossi's expressive outpouring of European charisma. Consider, for example, the singular setting, on the western end of what remains of the historic Superior Viaduct Bridge. An engineering marvel when it was built in 1878 (Ponte Vecchio means "old bridge"), the truncated span now ends somewhere above the western banks of the Cuyahoga River, yielding knockout views of the downtown skyline, the Flats, and both the Main Avenue and Veterans Memorial bridges.
Inside, the restaurant may be small, with only about 75 seats, but it takes advantage of its uniquely urbane perspective, with a spare, contemporary decor that gives way to walls of windows overlooking the cityscape. It's not an exaggeration to say that, at least for the moment, this is one of the most sophisticated-looking salons in the city, its sharp-edged surfaces sheathed in white marble, pink-and-black granite, and lustrous cherry wood, all played against vintage red brick and high black ceilings with exposed ductwork. Thanks to the multilevel layout, nearly every seat in the open, airy, roughly V-shaped room has a spectacular view; and, come warm weather, we suspect that a table on the planned outdoor patio will be one of the hottest seats in town.
Of course, such righteous scenery can give savvy diners pause, since it's practically a mantra among food fans that "the better the view, the worse the food." Happily, however, Ponte Vecchio's Executive Chef Fabio Danzo neatly sidesteps that old bugaboo with a small, tightly composed menu of antipasti, pastas, and meats that are about as far removed from spaghetti and meatballs as a Maserati is from a moped.
Co-owner Giuseppe Miceli is quick to brag that he made lots of enemies when he stole Danzo away from a top restaurant in Florence, and after working our way through the chef's streamlined repertoire, we can see why that might be. Take, for instance, his "timbale" of scampi, avocado, and tomato -- a misnomer, incidentally, that makes what is actually a scintillating salad sound dull and pasty. Yet tossed in a sheer but substantial dressing of French mustard and lemon, and corralled inside paper-thin ribbons of vertically sliced carrot, the neatly diced ingredients tasted pure, fresh, and vibrant. A pouf of alfalfa sprouts on top and a garnish of slim-cut sun-dried tomato, and the lush little starter was as vivacious in appearance as it was in taste.
While the flavors of a classic antipasto platter tread a more traditional path, with the usual cured and ripe olives, pepperoncini, roasted red-pepper slabs, sliced salami, and leaves of dusky prosciutto, the dish got an upscale nudge from the addition of thinly sliced veal in tuna sauce, a whole anchovy filet, and a baton of perfectly trimmed artichoke heart. Add thick slices of chewy crusted bread from the Stone Oven, dipped into a saucer of fine, grassy olive oil, and a bottle of red from the all-Italian wine list, and the sense of rustic luxe is nearly transformative.
(Speaking of luxury, if the occasion demands and the budget allows, you could hardly do better than a bottle of the huge, soft, ripe-fruit-filled Amarone della Valpolicella Classico '97, "Le Bessole," from Igino Accordini's Italian estate. If the $110 price tag is just too much, though, consider a $14 glass of Amarone della Valpolicella Bennati, instead; a generous pour in a French crystal goblet, and life can still seem mighty fine.)
Danzo's homemade pastas can be had in either whole or half-portions; unless you are a carboholic, we suggest ordering a half-portion "for the table," to either precede or accompany a meat or fish dish. But do watch out: Freshly made spinach gnocchi, tossed with thyme and sliced portobellos, are so ethereal, they threaten to float right up off the plate, and fights have started over more trifling matters than who will score the last of the al dente asparagus-filled ravioli, in a sauce of diced lamb and tomato, seasoned with a touch of mint. Some of the lamb cubes were slightly chewy, but the flavor -- deep, pleasantly gamy, yet vaguely sweet -- was a sensation.
Similarly, twin pork-loin medallions could have spent a shorter time in the sauté pan, but the unctuously rounded sauce of marsala, truffle oil, and diced and caramelized apples that surrounded them more than made up for that. No such problem with a well-seasoned rack of New Zealand lamb, though: Embraced in a thyme-scented crust and roasted to a juicy medium-rare, the three thick chops could not have been more tender and moist.
Good as all these dishes are, however, fish may well be Danzo's forte. One night's thick filet of opalescent halibut practically hovered above a bit of fruity cabernet reduction; and unusual sides -- this night, a bundle of roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, a little flan of mashed sweet potatoes and ricotta, and a roasted, sliced white potato -- augmented and amplified the halibut's delicacy. Better still, a Saturday-evening special of salmon and red snapper, layered with dill and lemon, wrapped in a translucent pastry laminate, and finished with a whisper of white-wine sauce, was almost shocking in its simple perfection. (Unfortunately, neither of these dishes has a berth on the new cold-weather menu, due out momentarily. However, a new offering -- poached grouper in spicy tomato sauce with garlic croutons -- sounds equally promising.)
When dessert time arrives, it's understandable that diners might have trouble choosing between temptations like the trembling, diminutive pyramid of panna cotta, or a dense, silken crème brûlée. Our advice, though, is to hold out for the tiramisu, the kitchen's unique deconstruction of the Italian classic that will find you dipping crisp ladyfingers into a little pot of liqueur-laced espresso, then twirling them through a thick fog of sweetened mascarpone. All our DIY projects should be half so delicious.
Nevertheless, it was a mistake to let Rossi catch us ordering cups of nasty American decaf as a finale: His disdain was palpable, as he shooed away our coffee-bearing waiter and stomped off to fetch us mugs of frothy-headed Ily cappuccino in its place. Truth be told, his faux-grumpy attention only served to make us feel highly pampered. And even if you aren't a critic, we're pretty sure he'd do the same for you.
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