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Music to Our Mouth 

At Dante, the food and 'tude make perfect harmony.

Hard-rock café, Dante-style — just don't ask him to play any Michael Stanley covers. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Hard-rock café, Dante-style — just don't ask him to play any Michael Stanley covers.

Forget his modern-American menu, with its harmonious riffs on seafood, steaks, and handmade pastas. If you want a glimpse of the real Dante Boccuzzi — chef, rocker, and, since September, owner of Dante, inside Valley View's former Lockkeepers — look no further than his shiny black breadbaskets.

Right away, you can see the guy's got a wicked sense of humor. It's right there in the way he melted down old LPs to craft these tidy bread holders. But take a peek at the bands he's chosen for the sacrifice. Naturally, there's Bread, a joke that elicits a wry chuckle from the 35-year-old chef. But Bachman-Turner Overdrive? A sneer and a dismissive shrug. And the homegrown Michael Stanley Band? A sardonic grin and an enthusiastic "They suck!"

Dig a little 'tude with your food? Then you've come to the right place. It's true that Boccuzzi — a Parma native and certified rocker, with two CDs to his name, including Parmatown: Where Everything You Need Is at THE MALL — can come across as a little intense. But his culinary cred gives him license. He's a Culinary Institute of America grad, two-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star nominee, and former executive chef at Nobu/Milan and New York's award-winning Aureole.

Lucky for regional diners, he's brought the whole package to Dante, where some recent tweaking has rendered the already impressive interior — complete with soaring ceilings, Deco-style lighting, and sumptuous woodwork — more stylish than ever. The dimly lit lounge is now partially separated from the airy dining room, making both spaces feel more intimate and urbane. On the walls, Boccuzzi's own framed and matted food photos — destined to be published in a cookbook — add a tasty personal touch.

In the dining room, white linens, crystal, delicate porcelain, and candlelight give tabletops a polished glow. Members of his friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive service team are always quick to clear a plate, fill a glass, or answer a food-o-phile's question. And while Boccuzzi recognized us not long after our arrival, we honestly don't think we received special treatment. After all, would there have been that boring 20-minute lag between salads and entrées at the height of the Saturday-night crush if staffers were trying to impress?

But the real showstopper here is, in fact, the modern-American menu — large but not overwhelming, and so cleverly composed that every food lover, regardless of status or budget, is bound to find a fave. Feeling flush? Feast on foie gras, caviar, and a $34 sirloin. A little light in the wallet? Share a salad, some house-cured charcuterie, and a more-than-ample $4 (yes, four dollars!) pasta tasting, and get out for around 15 bucks a head.

The long, international wine list is value-laden too. While only a minority of bottles fall at or below the $35 mark, that group includes some interesting possibilities, including several Chilean Cabs, a French Bordeaux, and two Californian Rosés. But the real deals are among the 50 half-bottle carafes, which provide more than two glasses of wine for less than twice the price of a single pour. For those who would welcome the guidance, GM and sommelier David Eselgroth is happy to make suggestions.

As for the food, the influences are almost as diverse as the prices, with accents ranging from Italian and French to Thai and Japanese. Underlying the eclectic pantry is his use of impeccable seasonal ingredients and painstaking classical technique, resulting in wildly intense yet tightly focused dishes like the glistening tagliatelle carbonara, topped with a trembling poached egg and trailing heady plumes of truffle butter. As with all five fresh pasta dishes — including another knockout in the earthy ricotta cavatelli with sweet garlic, wild mushrooms, and braised beef — the tagliatelle comes in three sizes: tasting, starter, and main. Grazers would do well to order two or three tasting portions as an entrée; but given the dishes' enormous flavor profiles, leftovers still may be inevitable.

Of course, it doesn't help that the signature breadbasket is bursting with an assortment of Stone Oven's chewy baguette slices and pillows of house-made herbed focaccia, with a sunny disk of sweet butter for straightforward slathering. Also included is a bouquet of crisp, skinny grissini, flecked with sharp black pepper and salty parmesan cheese. So tempting are these tidbits that by the time the amuse-bouche arrives — typically, a satiny shooter of cream-of-veggie soup — guests are likely to be already feeling the effects of the kitchen's generosity.

This is no excuse not to order more food, of course: perhaps a starter of melt-in-the-mouth calamari, with zesty lime mayo and sliced green scallions, or the succulent braised mussels, in a luxurious wash of coconut, curry, and cilantro. Among salads, consider the simple house version, with seasonal greens enlivened by fragrant micro-fennel. Or try the painterly plating of red oak-leaf lettuces, ivory hearts of palm (flown in fresh from Hawaii), and dusky wild mushrooms, glossed in ginger vinaigrette.

Then there's the charcuterie tasting, with a hefty portion of Boccuzzi's house-cured meats: rosy lamb, duck, and pork prosciutto, buttery mortadella, spicy soppresatta, and a little ramekin of duck rillettes (shredded and seasoned duck confit), just right for spreading on toast points. (Foodies, incidentally, are free to peek into the temperature-controlled wine room, where the meats are hung to dry.)

While entrées might seem superfluous at this point, it's worth pushing on to dishes like the reinterpreted Surf and Turf, an unforgettable interplay of darkness (boneless beef short-rib sous vide and woodsy trumpet mushrooms) and light (deftly seared day-boat scallops), tied up in a ribbon of voluptuous celery-root purée. Also impressive is the pancetta-wrapped veal tenderloin, sliced and fanned on a bed of sautéed spinach and accompanied by spicy stuffed Italian peppers, dainty chive gnocchi, and a whoosh of thyme-scented demi-glace.

At midday, additional temptations include the thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pizza with ever-changing toppings (on our visit, that included tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, translucent disks of house-made pepperoni, and peppery arugula). Also consider Dante's "lunch box" — a riff on both the Japanese bento box and, on this visit, the essential Cleveland fish fry, with ephemeral nuggets of battered walleye, sturdy steak frites, crunchy celery-root slaw, and a cup of chicken-orzo soup.

In fact, the only dishes that failed to uniformly impress came from the dessert menu, the province of executive pastry chef Wendy Thompson. We loved the bright, creamy homemade sorbets, in flavors like kiwi, citrus, and blood orange. And we swooned over the warm, almost pudding-like date cake, with pear and a flounce of mascarpone mousse. On the other hand, both a deconstructed Pavlova and an odd, greasy, and ultimately dissatisfying Crispy Tapioca dish seemed pretentiously plated and highly overwrought. Whimsy is one thing; whimsy without the requisite yum factor merely makes us wish we'd tapped out earlier.

Still, it would take far more than a single flat note to put us off Dante, where like wailing guitars, the mighty dishes mostly make us wanna jump and shout. Call it Lollapalooza for the tastebuds, if you want. We're just glad that Boccuzzi came home to belt it out.

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