A Break in the Chains

Neighborly Zelda has tasty food and a singular style.

Zelda 695 East 185th Street, Cleveland

216-531-9353 Portobello Mushroom Appetizer, $7

Antipasto Salad, $8

White Pizza (16-inch, $12

Shrimp and Fettuccine, $16.95

Four-Cheese Ravioli, $12.95

Angel-Hair Pasta Alla Olio, $12.95

Veal Scaloppini, $16.95

Roasted Salmon, $16.95

Ricotta Cheesecake, $4.50

Strudel, $4

Pecan Pie, $4

If leafy greens aren't your bag, try Zelda's antipasto. - Walter  Novak
If leafy greens aren't your bag, try Zelda's antipasto.
Food fanciers who frown on cookie-cutter chain restaurants can't help but rave over quirky little works-in-progress like Zelda.

Chef-owner Mark Duraney opened his modest Mediterranean eatery last July on a street corner in a pleasant East Side working-class neighborhood, where a pet store, a bakery, and a psychic reader rub shoulders with a TV-and-radio repair shop and the St. Vincent De Paul resale store. Don't bother looking for a sign yet: The restaurant's big green plastic awning, inherited from the previous occupant, reads a generic "Pizza," and the only clue that you have reached your destination is a tiny, neon-yellow "Zelda" -- nearly invisible from the street -- glowing in one corner of a window.

Once you find the place, don't bother looking for a menu, either. Duraney offers a half-dozen entrées each night, along with two appetizers, two salads, and a couple of homey dessert selections made by server Mag Garbincus. Either she or fellow server Sam Lipton will eventually ramble over to your table and recite the evening's alternatives; entrée prices are in the $12.95 to $16.95 range, but if you want to know for certain, you'll have to ask. (And in any case, don't plan on paying with plastic: Zelda accepts cash or personal checks only, thank you very much.)

And finally, forget about seeking out the wine list: Although diners are welcome to BYOB, the restaurant doesn't have a liquor license. Consider a nice Chianti, or maybe an inexpensive Sangiovese, if you plan to pack your own.

But whatever Zelda (named after Duraney's grandmother and favorite customer) still lacks in terms of conventional amenities, it makes up for with its big, warm heart, a relaxed and familiar atmosphere, and some very good food.

Remarkably, the restaurant -- which he admits he opened on a shoestring -- is Duraney's first experience as, quite literally, chief cook and bottle washer. His previous years in the foodservice industry were spent in the front of the house, helping operate places like Top of the Town, Z Contemporary Cuisine, and most recently, Little Italy's La Dolce Vita. But despite his lack of formal culinary training and behind-the-stove experience, Duraney has absolutely nailed the basic vocabulary of the Mediterranean kitchen. The essential flavor phrases of fragrant olive oil, fresh herbs, cheese, plum tomatoes, and roasted red peppers show up repeatedly on his menu, in various combinations and guises.

For example, a meaty marinated, broiled, and sliced portobello mushroom cap appetizer is sided by long, slender wedges of creamy Fontinella and a fan of roasted red pepper slices. A simple but impeccably fresh antipasto salad pairs crisp, cool romaine with a few kalamata olives, crumbles of feta cheese, shreds of Fontinella, slices of surprisingly tasty off-season Roma tomato, and more roasted red pepper strips, all tossed in a mild oil-and-vinegar dressing. And a deliciously savory but refreshingly light white pizza is a delightful combination of crisp, wafer-thin crust topped with feta and mozzarella cheeses, fresh rosemary, a little garlic and oregano, Roma tomato slices, and, yes, again -- roasted red pepper strips. The fact that all this repetition doesn't become wearisome is due, in part, to the classic nature of the ingredients and, in part, to Duraney's capacity for combining them with a light and skillful touch.

The kitchen also treats pasta, a prominent part of the (virtual) menu, with all due respect and turns it out about as close to al dente as you're likely to find in this neck of the Midwestern woods. All three of the pasta entrées we sampled over the course of two visits were unqualified hits, combining fresh flavors and ingredients with perfectly prepared noodles, to excellent overall effect.

Tasty Four-Cheese Ravioli, freshly made by Ohio City Pasta, were stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, Romano, and Parmesan cheeses, and had been attentively cooked until they were barely tender. The little pasta pillows were then sauced with Duraney's mild, prepared-to-order marinara, full of fresh tomato, green onion, basil, white wine, and a whisper of anchovy, which brightened but didn't overwhelm their flavor.

Likewise, Angel-Hair Pasta Alla Olio was tossed with plenty of chopped fresh tomato and yellow pepper, roasted red pepper slices, basil, and bits of scallion, and sided with four big, tender ground beef-and-lamb meatballs that made the dish a satisfying but not too heavy dinner.

Best of the lot, however, was a pile of fresh, perfectly prepared roasted red-pepper fettuccine tossed with olive oil, white wine, butter, fresh spinach, and lots of aromatic fresh garlic, and topped with a half-dozen crisp, juicy sautéed shrimp and at least a half-pound of fat, sautéed button mushrooms. The dish was simple itself, but the flavors and aromas of the ingredients were so heady and well-balanced that any chef in the city could be proud to call it his or her own.

(Incidentally, we waited more than a half-hour for the shrimp-and-fettuccine entrée to make its way out of the kitchen, a delay that we accepted with good humor, having come to realize that everything happens in its own good time at Zelda. In fact, our Saturday night dinner of shared antipasto salad, pizza, and pasta, followed by pie and coffee, took nearly two hours to complete, and several parties who were at their tables when we arrived were just getting ready to leave as we paid our bill. Just chalk up the dreamy pace as one more of Zelda's charming eccentricities, along with the bare cement and plywood floors, the gargoyles peering down from the walls, and the strings of Christmas lights twinkling in the windows.)

Other entrées worth noting included a huge portion of reasonably tender, thinly pounded veal scaloppini in a crunchy, well-seasoned breading that was spiked with sharp Romano cheese. The giant plank of meat was sided by some very good and garlicky mashed red-skinned potatoes and five glorious stalks of crisp asparation, a sweet, flavorful broccoli-asparagus hybrid, that Duraney seasoned with salt and pepper, and cleverly finished off in the same pan in which he had cooked the veal.

We also enjoyed a thick filet of moist, mild-flavored salmon, seasoned with a touch of sumac, a tangy, slightly sour spice common to Middle Eastern cooking. The fish, just a shade past perfectly done, was settled on a king-sized bed of firm, tri-colored orzo and cuddled up beside four big slabs of juicy roasted yellow squash.

If all this is sounding pretty good, be warned: Duraney cautions that future diners can expect to see some changes in the nightly food roster, not the least of which will be the introduction of a real menu that diners can ponder at their own pace. Furthermore, he hints that -- as he gets more experience under the belt of his chef's whites -- he is feeling the urge to attempt some new culinary creations. Nonetheless, he promises that the menu will remain simple, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and Mediterranean flavors.

Dessert choices at Zelda have varied in quality, from slices of unmemorable cheese and cherry strudels from the West Side Market to Garbincus's much better homemade sweets. Her Ricotta Cheesecake, with a topping of blackberries and raspberries in their natural juices, was creamy, dense, and not too sweet, and made a terrific foil to a plate of tangerine segments, sliced pineapple, and red and green grapes that appeared at the table -- a final gift from the kitchen. Likewise, a slice of her suitably rich and sticky pecan pie, plated with a big bunch of green grapes, was a perfect ending to another evening's very good meal.

Based on the friendly greetings and good wishes we saw exchanged between many of the customers and staff, it is clear that Zelda draws in her share of repeat customers from the neighborhood. (Duraney left the kitchen around 9 p.m. and made the rounds of the tables, showing an unsettling ability to remember faces, names, and the topics of previous conversations.) Our proclivity toward eavesdropping on other people's business also netted the news that some guests had driven in from Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, and even as far away as Westlake. This is as it should be, since this singular restaurant is certainly worth an occasional cross-town trip. Nonetheless, Zelda was never more than two-thirds full on either of our weekend visits, and that is a shame. For the food, for the value, and for the sheer fun of it, the lines at Zelda should be out the door.

Of course, with improved signage, which Duraney promises is coming in the spring, and ongoing positive word-of-mouth, it seems inevitable that business will build. So what are you waiting for? Avoid the rush, and get yourself over to Zelda while the getting is good.

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