Photo by Kory Gasser
Unlike a lot of young cooks these days, Vincent Morelli doesn’t talk a big game. In fact, getting him to open up about his vision for Cent’s Pizza was a little like pulling mozzarella: a bit laborious. No, Morelli prefers to show rather than tell, both through his meticulously curated interior and his painstakingly prepared food. The benefit of such an approach, as evidenced by the awe-struck look on guests’ faces as they arrive, is to foster an experience that survives longer than the slices.
Duck into Cent’s, which is located in an unassuming brick building on the Ohio City/Detroit Shoreway border, and you’re immersed in a world of Morelli’s construction. That world is a tangerine-colored tableau that literally envelops diners, who must walk under and through an erector set of modular shelving. Those shelves are stocked with artsy and eclectic merch like imported foods, clothing, home goods and indie magazines, items that strike the owner’s artistic whims. Space in the wooden armature is set aside for a DJ station equipped with turntables and the like. That gear joins a projector and retractable screen system to produce an all-encompassing audio/video experience.
As a former visual merchandiser for a street fashion brand, it’s not surprising that Morelli gets interior design. But it was the stint at Roberta's in Brooklyn that ignited his passion for pizza dished up in a lively, unconventional atmosphere. Like that pioneering pizzeria, Cent’s is built around a wood-burning oven. And while the food is unmistakably serious, the vibe is anything but. This is the type of place where diners can get a little tipsy, act a little rowdy, and not worry too much about offending the next table over.
When Cent’s opened in August, it did so with the increasingly familiar format that asked guests to order at the counter, take a number card and grab a seat inside or out. That system has given way to a more traditional one that employs servers taking orders with handheld devices. This structure will make even more sense when the restaurant secures its liquor license in the coming weeks and servers find themselves fielding drink orders. (For now, Cent’s is BYOB, with a $5-per-person service fee.)
People often describe a pizza crust as being so good that it can be enjoyed on its own. At Cent’s, that’s definitely the case, where the Wonder Bread ($6) appears on most tables. After a quick spell in the wood-fired oven, a doughball is transformed into a nearly spherical steam-filled loaf. Of course, it tastes even better when schmeared with the house-cultured butter ($2) or the 'nduja ($10), a funky, fiery free-form sausage. Other starters include housemade stracciatella, duck prosciutto, pickled veggies and an assortment of tinned fishes like octopus, sardines and white anchovies ($10), which are dressed with olive oil, lemon, capers and herbs.
Morelli’s kale Caesar ($12) is piled high with vibrant greens and showered with parmesan and lemon zest. Another salad blends endive and frisee with fresh herbs in an Aleppo-spiced vinaigrette.
When it comes to the main event, Morelli also bucks convention. While hand-shaped and baked in a wood-burning oven, the pies can only loosely be described as Neapolitan. They are larger, more uniformly round and lack the soupy middle and wild crown typical of the genre. Up top, Morelli shrewdly weaves bold ingredients like speck, white anchovies, cream cheese and even Luxardo cherries into cohesive arrangements that surprise as much as satisfy. Even so-called staples like a meatball pie get reworked into more elegant and enjoyable creations. Cent’s version, called Sunday Gravy ($18), is lightly sauced and dotted with bite-size meatballs, heaps of sliced garlic and a flurry of pecorino. The Pepperoni ($16) features a sea of melted mozz topped with a flotilla of crisp-edged ‘roni cups. In addition to a stable of a dozen or so pies, the restaurant offers specials such as the Phat Parm ($20), a seasonal arrangement with pancetta, shaved Brussels and parmesan cream.
Tables are set with a stack of ceramic plates, silverware, glassware and a pitcher of ice water. When the pies arrive, they are placed not atop the predictable recycled tomato cans but smooth, squat wood pillars of various heights, proving that almost no detail went overlooked.
In some ways, Morelli’s little stretch of Lorain is not unlike the untamed Bushwick of 2008 that attracted the owners of Roberta’s. It’s south of the action in Detroit Shoreway, west of Ohio City proper and still sparsely populated with restaurants. Like his former employers, Vincent “Cent” Morelli is a pizza-making pioneer set to usher in the next wave of development.
Cent’s Pizza + Goods
5010 Lorain Ave., Cleveland