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Massimo Da MilanoMisses the Mark 

Italian eatery needs balance between quality and price.

Here's the good news: Massimo Da Milano dishes up plenty of food at reasonable prices.

The bad news? Not all of that food is so good.
The restaurant, situated since 1989 in a beautifully restored, 95-year-old bank building on the edge of Ohio City, has a large menu of enticing-sounding pasta, veal, steak, chicken, and seafood dishes. Prices, while not exactly rock-bottom, range from $10.95 to $25.95, with most entrees running $17.95 or less.

Owner Antonio Dilorio says diners come from throughout the region to celebrate special occasions at his restaurant. However, while we found some menu items quite good, others are disappointing. Factor in lackluster service and a reality gap between the menu's descriptions and what actually comes out of the kitchen, and you have a restaurant that appears to have fine-dining aspirations but hasn't hit the mark.

Even the decor--which moves between classical, contemporary, and funky-- seems emblematic of the restaurant's lack of identity. While the main dining room is elegant, with hardwood floors, glistening marble-topped tables, and capped columns holding up a plaster rosette-strewn ceiling, a smaller, inner dining room has old brick walls, an enormous skylight, and abstract oil paintings that give it a more contemporary feel. A third space near the entrance serves as an open lounge area; at night, it is illuminated with funky purple neon lights. But although the lounge has a striking view of downtown across the Detroit-Superior Bridge, its lingering smell of stale cigar smoke slaps guests in the face when they walk in the front door.

My first visit was during a weekday lunch. Our host showed us to a table in the main dining room, gestured toward the buffet in the middle of the floor, and told us to help ourselves.

I was a little disappointed by the lack of a lunch menu: Judging a restaurant on the basis of a buffet meal can be problematic. On the one hand, a buffet affords a great way to sample a variety of the kitchen's output. On the other hand, no food improves as it languishes over a can of Sterno.

We started with a cup of what our harried server told us was tomato-vegetable soup. (She was one of just two waitresses we sighted working the room and servicing the buffet.) The soup was light on the vegetables and oily, but had a pleasant, tomato-y taste.

We enjoyed the hard-crusted little panini that we found at one end of the buffet. However, we didn't care for the olive oil provided at our table for bread dipping. After one taste of the strong, bitter stuff, I suspected it was on its way to rancidity and asked for butter. (We waited a good long time for it to arrive, too, as we did for water, for removal of our plates between visits to the buffet, and eventually, for our bill.)

The antipasto section of the buffet included an assortment of black and green olives, roasted sweet red peppers, and wedges of salami and provolone cheese. The tossed greens in a big serving bowl would have made a nice salad, but they had been sitting in their dressing too long and were getting soggy.

Hot buffet items ranged from good to uninspired. Penne (later replaced with rotini) with roasted vegetables in a mild tomato sauce was satisfying, and we enjoyed slices of moist roast pork. However, we pushed aside our sample of rice mixed with bits of what seemed to be beef tenderloin and chunks of ground beef, and we also disliked the dense, tasteless polenta cubes sinking beneath a thick, bland white sauce.

Curiosity drove us to ask to see the dessert tray, which was not included in the $6.75 buffet charge. From it, we chose tiramisu and a long rectangle of citrus cheesecake.

Although there are almost as many varieties of tiramisu as there are pastry chefs in Cleveland, the popular dessert generally brings with it the distinctive flavor of sweet mascarpone cheese. But this tiramisu--which came in a little glass bowl, topped with whipped cream, toasted almonds, and a cherry--tasted more like imitation custard. In fact, when my companion took a bite, she crinkled up her nose and declared, "Royal pudding."

The cheesecake wasn't much better. It was greasy and had just a hint of citrus: Eating it was almost like trying to choke down a stick of butter. Furthermore, judging by the shriveled appearance of the kiwi and strawberry slices that decorated it, the cheesecake had been riding that tray for quite a while.

We got a final surprise when we paused to peek at the dinner menu on our way out: Our host produced a lunch menu! Sure, we could have ordered off the menu, he said, but almost everyone gets the buffet. ("Well, duh!" we grumbled into our lapels. "Maybe that's because guests aren't given a choice!")

Three different companions and I returned for dinner the following week, on an evening I later learned was Chef Rene Caron's night off. This time, we were given menus, which were divided into three main sections entitled Antipasti (appetizers), Primi (pasta and polenta dishes), and Secondi Piatti (with veal, chicken, beef, and seafood items). Seeing separate listings for first and second courses, we wondered if the portions were sized so diners could follow the tradition of ordering a dish from each section to create their meal. But our waiter told us no--both the primi and the secondi piatti were full-sized entrees, and a diner was not expected to order something from both categories. "It's confusing," he admitted.

Although the menu listed 22 entrees, there was a good deal of repetition. For example, we spotted fettuccine with field mushrooms, polenta with field mushrooms, veal with field mushrooms, chicken with field mushrooms, and medallions of beef with porcini, cremini, and portobello mushrooms.

We eventually settled on the fettuccine (Fettuccine con Funghi e Crema alla Marsala), a sauteed chicken breast (Pollo alla Milanese), the beef medallions with assorted mushrooms (Bistecca al Funghetto), and sea scallops (Talpa alla Puttanesca).

Our entrees were preceded by a salad of tender, fresh mixed greens dressed in a sharp balsamic vinaigrette, and a big basket of warm breads, including the panini and baguettes I had enjoyed previously, as well as cubes of herbed focaccia. Again, the olive oil provided for dipping--which I expect to be a fruity virgin olive oil--was strong and bitter.

Our entrees arrived on big platters. The boneless chicken breast filet, lightly dusted in flour before being sauteed in olive oil, was good. It was fork-tender and got a powerful shot of flavor from the finely minced garlic, green herbs, green olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese that topped it. It was served on a king-sized bed of firm rice and sided with a portion of savory, well-grilled zucchini, yellow squash, and red peppers.

The fettuccine with field mushrooms was less successful. The large serving of pasta was coated in a thin, bland white sauce, which the menu had described as a "delicate Marsala cream sauce." The many huge slices of portobello mushrooms (along with a few slices of what appeared to be white button mushrooms) couldn't infuse it with much flavor, and gave me--devoted fungus fan though I am--no motivation to clean my plate.

The filet-mignon-and-mushroom dish was also disappointing. While the menu called for a mix of mushrooms, portobellos alone accompanied the meat. The menu also indicated the dish was "finished with red wine and fresh tomatoes," a description that suggests something relatively light. Instead, both the mushrooms and the two medallions of beef--one thin and medium, as ordered; the other thick and very rare--were buried beneath a thick, oily red sauce flecked with bits of tomato. The blanket of greasy sauce made the dish unpleasantly heavy.

The seafood entree was no better. Six or seven large, chewy, and tasteless sauteed scallops were set upon a mound of linguine (which the menu had not mentioned) and were finished with finely minced garlic, green herbs, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, green olives, capers, and grated Parmesan cheese. Despite the savory toppings and a thin, oily sauce, the dish managed to remain bland. The final blow was discovering a large pasta bolus in the middle of the dish, the apparent result of inadequate attention during cooking.

Throughout the meal, our server was pleasant but inattentive. Although by 8:30 p.m. we were the only diners left in the restaurant, he was slow to take our orders, remove our menus, and refill our water glasses, and failed to provide clean spoons when he served our coffee.

Certainly, not every meal has to be a culinary tour de force or a budget-busting blast. But at some point, food quality and price have to reach equilibrium. While reasonable prices are great, they can't be an excuse for a disappointing dining experience, and mediocrity is never a bargain.

Massimo Da Milano.
1400 West 25th Street, Cleveland. 216-696-2323. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday-Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Lunch Buffet $6.75

Fettuccine con Funghi e Crema alla Marsala $11.95

Pollo alla Milanese $11.95

Bistecca al Funghetto $16.95

Talpa alla Puttanesca $15.95

Dessert Tray Selections $3.00

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