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DANTE UPS THE ANTE 

The restless Chef Boccuzzi outdoes himself in Tremont

If it's true that the best chefs are those who move around early in their careers, then Dante Boccuzzi has a lock on the Golden Toque Award. The Parma native's résumé is so padded with prominent posts that one might presume him guilty of embellishment. Of particular note are star-studded stints in London, Milan, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York.

If Boccuzzi were in the résumé-editing spirit, the one restaurant he likely would choose to omit is the late Dante in Valley View. From the beginning, the fit was never ideal, the chef later admitted, and he soon set his sights on greener pastures. Those emerald meadows turned out to be Tremont, Cleveland's reigning culinary disco. And what an edifice to call home! The former bank building is, by all measures, one of the sweetest houses on Restaurant Row.

What some call "loud," we call lively. This bistro is compact, at times boisterous, and chockful of compelling characters — everything the old Valley View spot was not. It is precisely this heightened energy level that distinguishes Dante 2.0 from the beta version, which was too cavernous to ever feel hip. We say turn it up!

Boccuzzi's travels have granted him a distinctive set of culinary skills. In the wrong hands, the blending of cuisines like Italian, French and Asian could be disastrous. But the chef has such command of flavors that nothing feels like fusion. A diner can move seamlessly from scallion-studded calamari with chili aioli to silken porcini risotto to grilled skirt steak with curried cauliflower and not suffer gastronomic whiplash.

That doesn't mean one wouldn't benefit from a better roadmap. Dante's menu suffers from poor layout, lacking distinct sections for starters, mids and mains. Worse, vertical columns unintentionally steer diners up and down the page rather from side to side, which is how the dishes are grouped. Promised changes to the spring menu should address this issue.

Much of the problem (if you could call it that) is due to the fact that the menu contains so many appealing options. There are nearly a dozen appetizers, three versions each of pasta, polenta and risotto, and eight main courses. Toss in the three soups (a puree, a chunky and a broth) and the trio of salads, and one begins to see why a coherent menu is essential.

Boccuzzi doesn't dabble in a cuisine, he immerses himself in it. His charcuterie platter (an absolute steal at $14) is laden with house-made versions of mortadella, sopressata and the chef's righteous "Parma Town Prosciutto." The plate also contains silky chicken liver mousse, rustic duck pate and a steamy crock of pork rillettes. Moving from the cured to the raw, diners can opt for briny oysters ($12) stacked atop a seaweed throne, sweet and spicy beef carpaccio ($10), and one of the finest preparations of tuna tartar ($12) in the 216.

Some of the brightest and most satisfying components on the menu are the mix-and-match pastas, polentas and risottos. Guests can select among various toppings and portion sizes, making it easy to add one or more of these to any meal. Al dente linguini ($4/8/15) is crowned with a poached egg, generating an on-the-spot carbonara sauce. Broth-soaked porcini mushrooms enrich an already supple Arborio risotto ($4/8). But the finest starch just might be the soft polenta paired with succulent braised rabbit ($6). This dish may forever banish the phrase "Poor bunny."

Though the preparation will soon evolve with the season, the sea scallop entrée ($19) we enjoyed was both delicious and surprising. Perched on tempura-fried mushroom caps, the seared scallops benefit from the textural boost. But it is the black and white sesame vinaigrettes that leave us licking our fingers. Grilled and sliced skirt steak ($20) has all the beefy goodness and none of the toughness characteristic of the cut. In place of ho-hum spuds, this dish features crispy potato croquettes. The only "duck" in the bunch turns out to be a pancetta-wrapped duck breast ($22), which arrives too rare on take one, and too chewy on take two.

Despite its petite size, Dante offers an unexpected range of seating options. Bar diners benefit from plush leather stools. Parties looking for a measure of privacy can book the bank vault, a safe bet for four-tops. A soon-to-open glass-walled gazebo will offer picturesque alfresco views. True connoisseurs, however, are flocking to the chef's table. Seated in the kitchen, food fans enjoy a chef's tasting menu comprised of seven, 14 or 21 courses.

Plans are still in full-go mode on Gingko, Boccuzzi's modern Japanese eatery located beneath Dante. Look for it to open sometime this summer.

dining@clevesccene.com

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