Cleveland's most adaptable chef does it again, this time with Italian at Chinato

If Cleveland is one of the most miserable cities in America, you'd be hard pressed to find evidence at Chinato. On a brisk Monday at noon in early March — the day, week and month all notorious for dim sales — the snazzy trattoria is aglow with mirthful souls. Wine glasses tinkle; ebullient chatter bubbles high into the rafters; and well-heeled swells slurp back deliriously good pasta. If there is a miserable sack in this lot, he or she likely is the one scrubbing pots.

More than any restaurateur in town, Zack Bruell knows that setting the mood is no less important than setting the table. His restaurants — four now, if you've lost count — boast a mise-en-scène that immediately buoys one's spirit. Like Parallax, L'Albatros and Table 45, Chinato is designed to make us feel special.

For this high-profile location, Bruell reworked a rough warehouse space into a sepia-toned daydream. A room-length mural of Florence provides a playful sense of place, while gauzy window linens offer separation from the reverie-busting reality on the far side of the glass. An open kitchen and lively bar boost energy levels to lofty but measured heights.

If all this feels familiar, even formulaic, that's because it is. Swap French bistro fare for Chinato's upscale Italian and you've got L'Albatros. Do the same with Asian-inspired seafood and you're sitting down at Parallax. Bruell succeeds at replicating his Midas-like modus operandi by essentially reducing it to two moving parts: food and wine.

Here, Bruell takes on Italian, refining and redefining the classics in contemporary fashion. And — surprise, surprise — he nails it. I've sampled four of the dozen or so pastas, and I'd order every one of them again. Each is an artful balance of flavors, textures and aromas, no small feat for a chef new to the cuisine. Thick rags of fresh pasta ($8/15) are coated in a creamy cauliflower sauce; buttery lumps of gnocchi ($8/15) are dotted with bits of toasted garlic; weightless ravioli ($10/18) swell from a savory meat and vegetable filling.

Whereas most operators commence with a modest menu that evolves over time, Bruell takes off with a shotgun blast. His menus are lengthy, alluring and built to last. The Bunyan-esque roster of dishes at Chinato will stop a dithering diner in his tracks, but it also will all but guarantee his return.

Starters range from the sublime, like glistening shavings of raw yellowtail ($9), to the ridiculous, like a bowl of fried sweetbreads ($10) that eats like popcorn. The former can be found in the crudo section of the menu and is minimally anointed with perky pesto. The latter is located among the antipasti, and the unabashedly salty bits of creamy organ meat are intermingled with fried veggies, plump caper berries and fat-ripping lemon slices.

What Chinato calls suppli ($7), most of us know as arancini, pedestrian snacks of stuffed and fried rice balls. There is nothing dull about these blessed orbs, which arrive bearing a crisp jacket of grated parmesan and a base of tangy marinara. Earthy chicken livers ($7) are presented in a cast-iron mini-crock, along with vinegary cabbage and fried onions. We are less impressed with Bruell's take on burrata ($10), a typically dreamy blob of fresh mozzarella that oozes silken curds when sliced. This version is cold, milky, chalky and, frankly, odd.

As rich as many of Chinato's starters and pastas can be, it's almost imperative to slip in an intermezzo salad course. Light, bright and leaping with summery freshness, these salads best most of their leafy kinfolk. One marries mild, shaved fennel ($7), orange segments, olives and a dollop of loose ricotta. Another ($9) is built around sliced octopus, the meaty discs tossed in a citrus-y dressing with arugula and shingles of good cheese.

Every great song needs a hook — and the same goes for a restaurant. For me, that hook is the porchetta ($17), a delicious swirl of roasted pork belly and herbs. Dished up in a broth with kicky braised greens, the entrée beckons like a cliff-bound siren. Conversely, a too-fatty veal breast ($20) on soft polenta fails to deliver as big a reward. Fish fans in search of a winner can't go wrong with Chinato's skate wing ($18), barely breaded and sautéed with butter and lemon.

Chinato at lunchtime really is an exercise in affordable luxury. Cleveland's movers and shakers sip wines off the meticulously curated list, which includes compelling labels from every conceivable corner of Italy. Pair a svelte fennel-sausage pizza ($11) with a glass of crisp Umbrian wine and see how positively un-miserable you feel.