Fashion Plate

As fine-dining beauties go, Piatto is quite a dish.

Piatto, one of Akron's budding stars. - Walter  Novak
Piatto, one of Akron's budding stars.
Stepping off the bleak sidewalk into downtown Akron's Piatto is like discovering a diamond in the bottom of a cornflakes box. Reshaped and redesigned, the former bank building near the intersection of Main and Exchange has been given new life as one of the most elegantly understated dining rooms in the region -- a place where ladies should punctuate their conversations with a wave of thin ebony cigarette holders, where bouquets of calla lilies should spill out of shapely vases, and where dapper gentlemen should be observed insouciantly tossing white silk cravats around slender necks as they step out into the night.

Even without such imaginary enhancements, Piatto (Italian for plate) exudes style. Exceptionally spacious, with high ceilings, broad hallways, and multileveled dining areas, the restaurant is a curvaceous swath of inlaid floors, mirrored walls, and dramatic, oversized lighting fixtures. Black granite, brushed aluminum, and blond wood set off walls dressed in subdued shades of taupe and beige; a touch of leopard-print upholstery and gauzy, iridescent window treatments lend a wink of slyness.

But while the dining room's decor may hark back to the grand restaurants of the 1930s, don't come here expecting a menu of Shrimp Newburg, Maurice Salad, and deviled cheese balls. Instead, owner and Executive Chef Roger Thomas has put together a selection of colorful, rustic Mediterranean fare that stands in sharp contrast to the sleek surroundings and serves to pique diners' appreciation of both.

Thomas's career has taken him to most of Akron's top restaurants, including the Wine Merchant, Ken Stewart's Grille, and 1680, and along the way he has learned to play with flavors and textures the way Rembrandt balanced shadow and light. Sweet, delicate sea bass is perfectly paired with a robust, slightly tart ragout of capers, mushrooms, and red pepper, and settled on a hummus-like bed of pureed chickpeas. The fiery spice of homemade sausage, roundly seasoned with garlic, fennel, and cayenne, is kept in check by a yielding, soft polenta. Smoked chicken filling inside free-form spinach lasagna develops depth and texture with the addition of slightly bitter roasted walnuts.

While Thomas also makes use of reductions and sauces, they are generally light-textured and sparingly applied, so that the naturally occurring flavor balances of the foods are highlighted, not masked. Crisp-crusted "fritters" of creamy lobster-spiked risotto, topped with a smoky grilled scallion, were already wonderful; a bit of red-bell-pepper-infused oil and a few drops of balsamic syrup were all it took to make the dish extraordinary. And a mere whisper of submissive Chianti reduction, drizzled across perfectly prepared pork tenderloin (seasoned with pancetta, rosemary, and garlic) turned the dish into an unforgettable sensation.

For those who would feast like peasant kings, dinner at Piatto must begin with a sampling of gourmet olive oils. The Italian and French alternatives ranged from a slightly sweet and fruity Moulin des Penitents (Provence) to an estate-bottled Laudemio Frescobaldi (Florence), so dense and grassy that we momentarily thought we were lying on a freshly mown lawn. The oils are served with all the pomp and circumstance of fine wine: formally presented by the server, ceremoniously poured around a haystack of freshly grated parmesan onto green and yellow Villeroy & Boch saucers, then drifted with ground black pepper. For sopping up the fragrant oils, the kitchen's rich, cake-like focaccia is delectable. Prices run from $1.75 to $3.75 a pour, making it a trifling extravagance to select two or three -- or more -- oils for the table; the menu includes tasting notes that encourage diners to compare and contrast the flavors and aromas.

We followed one night's olive-oil tasting with the equally earthy Antipasto Piatto, a generous platter of thinly sliced prosciutto, freshly made mozzarella, pickled Hungarian yellow peppers, wood-grilled breads, black and green olives, and Roma tomato halves stuffed with creamy crab salad. To drink, glasses of Chianti and zinfandel, chosen from the restaurant's thoughtfully assembled cellar of Italian, West Coast, French, and New Zealand wines, lent just the right notes of soil and spice.

An ample house salad of baby greens, chopped celery, and finely julienned carrot, judiciously dressed in a smooth, vaguely sweet vinaigrette, is included in the price of entrées and makes a fine palate cleanser before diners move on to the carefully crafted main events. Polenta Barese -- topped with meaty sausage and handfuls of mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, and grilled peppers -- whispered of the Italian countryside. A blushing-pink veal chop, studded with slivers of pungent black truffle cheese and simply served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and an avalanche of deeply sautéed mushrooms, made a sophisticated counterpoint. And the lasagna -- sheer sheets of handmade spinach pasta draped over a filling of succulent smoked chicken, Asiago, and toasted walnuts, then stroked with a remarkably light Gorgonzola cream sauce -- brought together elements both rural and refined.

The dessert menu offers one of the area's most enticing selections of housemade sweets, including snowy-white panna cotta (a simple eggless custard, thickened with gelatin); nougat-like semifreddo, topped with toasted hazelnuts and chocolate and Frangelico-caramel sauces; and rich arborio rice pudding (dolce di riso), dusted with candied orange peel, surrounded by a soupçon of orange syrup, and accompanied by a peeled and cored roasted pear. Adventurers can continue their explorations with a plate of mignardises --a selection of small chocolate surprises. The virtuous can cap off their night with espresso or cappuccino and a wafer of almond biscotti.

Across the course of two visits, Piatto's missteps were minor. Braised greens served with one night's sea bass included several woody stems. Crescents of zucchini and summer squash, accompanying that high-intensity pork loin, seemed surprisingly unimaginative. Balsamic-tossed strawberries surrounding the panna cotta would have been better if they had been local and in season. And in such an elegant setting, the restaurant's insubstantial paper menus seemed out of place.

Service also sometimes lagged behind the quality of the food and the decor. Pacing was typically uneven, with unusually long waits between some courses. Despite the joyful mess we made with our bread and olive oil, the table was crumbed only once, just prior to dessert. And on a Saturday night, with 8 p.m. reservations, we nevertheless waited more than 20 minutes to be seated. It's worth noting, however, that what was potentially the most serious glitch -- the arrival of an incorrect entrée -- was handled with grace and aplomb. When we pointed out the mistake to our youthful waiter ("See here, young man, this is sea bass, not sausage!"), he immediately accepted responsibility for the error, invited us to enjoy the sea bass while we waited for the sausage, then set about making things right. Despite the other lapses, his actions demonstrated a true understanding of hospitality and left us feeling happy and well-treated.

After all, love may make the world go 'round, but it's happy surprises like Piatto that make it worth the ride.