Not that Traci's is in any particular danger, having done a commendable job of keeping up with the times. Although it first opened in 1938, when Sam and Irene Traci converted an old Finnish restaurant into an Italian tavern and eatery, the spot remains comfortably contemporary and current. It went through one facelift in 1953 (after being hit by a tornado) and was extensively remodeled in 1995, when several of the grandchildren took over the family business. The squat little stucco building on an otherwise dreary Ohio City street corner now looks downright trendy, with its green-and-purple tile trim, glass cupola, pink neon sign, and pots of color-coordinated petunias and geraniums flanking the front door. Inside, the moderne mood continues, with walls painted in deeply saturated shades of gold, green, and eggplant, accented with electric-blue glassware and crisp white linens.
But nostalgia also gets its due here, from the old framed copies of former Traci's menus that line the rear walls to the vintage photo of Sam and Irene that sits in its own little shrine-like niche by the heavy front door. The original art deco-style bar runs along one side of the room, separated from the intimate dining area by a half-wall; the restaurant is entirely nonsmoking, so complete isolation isn't necessary. A well-worn upright piano cuddles into a crisp alcove in the back, beneath a reminder (Irene's favorite saying) that "A Meal Without Wine Is Like a Day Without Sunshine"; on a recent Saturday night, pianist George Masour teased an array of music out of the instrument -- from "That's Amore!" to Steely Dan -- that seemed to delight most everyone. (Live entertainment is featured every Friday and Saturday evening, as well as Monday during lunch.)
Under the direction of Executive Chef Richard S. Maitland and Chef Jeff Traci, the kitchen also does a good job of blending the old with the new. For the most part, ingredients are wonderfully fresh, flavors are robust, and presentation is unfussy but attractive. A good example of the kitchen's craft was an opener of three plump, notably fresh banana peppers stuffed with a spicy, finely ground Italian sausage and perfectly sautéed to tender crispness. Simple, rustic, yet full of goodness, it reminded us of the enduring value of fresh foods, thoughtfully prepared. An ample sautéed calamari appetizer was also well-done, with a tasty coating of seasoned breadcrumbs wrapped around outstandingly supple rings. On the side came an overflowing bowl of chunky house-made marinara so fresh and flavorful that any nonna would have been proud to call it her own.
We also liked the baked portobello starter: several thick slices of mushroom, topped with an unusual but vibrant blend of smoked salmon and cream cheese -- although we missed the absent garnish of toasted almonds that the menu had promised. But the Mozzarella Caprese -- chunks of creamy baby mozzarella served on slices of bland yellow tomato, with bits of fresh basil -- could have used more olive oil, as well as a splash of vinegar, to brighten it up.
Among the fresh pasta selections from Ohio City Pasta, both the Spaghettini alla Basilia (thin spaghetti in a basil-flecked marinara, with a choice of meatballs or lengths of meaty, fennel-flavored Italian sausage from Cleveland's Leo's Sausage) and the Capellini alla Pesto (spinach angel-hair pasta in a mild, roasted three-pepper pesto sauce, with quartered artichoke hearts) were delicious. Properly preparing thin pastas can be tricky: Cooking time is short, near-constant stirring is required, and the strands still have a proclivity for clumping together into impenetrable boluses of starch. But not here, where the noodles emerged from the pot firm and sleek, and came to the table well-drained, well-dressed, and steaming hot.
The menu also includes a number of seafood and meat entrées, some of which trace their roots back to Irene Traci's original recipes. Among these, a house specialty of Cotoletta alla Milanese, an enormous cutlet of thin-pounded pork loin coated with seasoned bread crumbs and sautéed to crunchy-crusted perfection, was mouthwatering. On the side came a serving of farfalle in marinara sauce. Likewise, Veal alla Traci -- a twist on Veal Marsala -- was scrumptious, with medallions of succulent veal topped with a blanket of deeply caramelized onions, mushrooms, and bacon in a thick, mahogany Marsala reduction sauce. The meat was sided by a generous serving of carrots and crisp sugar snap peas, and a mound of simply prepared pan-fried potatoes. (As with all of the non-pasta entrées, the plate was garnished with a single strawberry and an orange slice, a strangely dated little touch that seemed to fall somewhere between odd and charming.)
The only disappointment was with another specialty, Sautéed Scampi: four big bruisers, lightly dusted with breadcrumbs and drizzled with a very nice, light sherry-garlic butter sauce. Despite the seasonings, though, the scampi themselves were dull, with a slightly dry texture and bland flavor that identified them as frozen, not fresh.
Entrées are reasonably priced from $14 to $23 and come with a choice of large salads -- either torn romaine in a bright and lemony Caesar dressing or the Traci Salad of mixed greens with shredded salami, mortadella, capacollo, and mozzarella in a subtly sweet balsamic vinaigrette -- that make the meals an even better value. In the breadbasket we found thick, room-temperature slices of average Italian bread, served with creamy, whipped butter. Traci's serviceable wine list includes mostly Italian and Californian products ranging from $19 to more than $100 per bottle; relatively few offerings are available by the glass.
Desserts are limited to a pretty good imported Italian tartuffo (a chocolate-gelato "truffle" rolled in chopped hazelnuts and cocoa powder), spumoni, Italian ices, and a not-to-be-missed house-made tiramisu: a fresh-tasting, delicately flavored, and not too gooey rectangle of espresso-and-Marsala-soaked ladyfingers layered with sweetened mascarpone and whipping cream, and sprinkled with cocoa powder. A Saturday-night dessert special of creamy cheesecake, topped with pineapple, toasted coconut, and sliced kiwi, was also delicious.
On both visits, service was relaxed but attentive. Our mature, professional servers nearly always knew what we wanted or needed even before we did and made sure that we got it, pronto. On our second visit, our server asked if we had been in previously and seemed sincerely pleased when we said that we had; as we left, the bartender smiled and waved, and said he hoped he would see us again. That type of friendly, welcoming atmosphere is no doubt what has helped build Traci's large corps of devoted regulars, a group as stylish yet diverse as the music that rolls over the sound system whenever the pianist takes a break.