Charmed, I'm Sure

Giovanna's, a heavenly restaurant in a damned location.

Giovanna's 10427 Clifton Boulevard 216-631-3463; 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Chicken Parmesan is one of Giovanna's many reliable - crowd-pleasers. - Walter  Novak
Chicken Parmesan is one of Giovanna's many reliable crowd-pleasers.
The first deep thinker who manages to pinpoint the exact reason why some good restaurants fail will go down in food history. Until then, one can only assume that restaurateurs Nick and Giovanna Kustala (owners of Willoughby's popular Lure Bistro) have developed certain theories of their own to guide them in establishing their new crosstown dining room, Giovanna's.

Presumably, exorcisms and shamans haven't been part of the plan (although the room's history -- Giovanna's is the third restaurant here in six years -- could give any owner the willies). Instead, the Kustalas have thrown themselves into addressing a much more corporeal concern: How does a restaurant in a handsome middle-class neighborhood build a large constituency of regular diners?

If the experiences of former occupants Mise and Jeso prove anything, it is that it cannot be done simply by serving out-of-the-ordinary dishes, like Jeso's apricot-seeded pork tenderloin, say, or Mise's coffee-crusted sea scallops on hazelnut spaetzle. (Both dishes, incidentally, were fabulous.) And it certainly isn't achieved by way of high prices.

Instead, perhaps the Kustalas' thinking went something like this: "What if some shrewd entrepreneurs were to reopen the space with a menu of comforting Italian crowd-pleasers -- items like pizza, chicken Parmesan, and homemade cavatelli -- served up in munificent portions and priced low enough for almost everyday consumption? Better yet, what if the potentially ho-hum menu offerings were to be upgraded by smart preparation and high-test flavors, and plated with a certain amount of artful flair? Would that be enough to turn the space around?"

It's still too early to tell, of course, but our suspicion is that the Kustalas have indeed cooked up a winning recipe for a successful neighborhood joint. The obvious corollary is that Giovanna's is not primarily a destination dining room -- although we would happily drive miles out of our way for more of chef de cuisine Paul Haravanik's mussels, served in an intense, fennel-flavored broth of sambuca and finely shredded celery, onion, and carrot "sofrito"; or another one of the eponymous Giovanna's pizzas, its tender, brick-oven-baked crust loaded with shredded prosciutto and melted disks of fresh mozzarella.

Being a moderately priced neighborhood restaurant also means that the kitchen takes certain cost-saving shortcuts, such as siding every entrée with the same veggie du jour, or using the same buttery veal mini-meatballs to pique a rustic vegetable soup and to garnish the al dente ricotta cavatelli, glossed with a perfectly balanced, freshly made tomato-basil sauce.

And finally, it means that not a lot of capital has gone into stocking the bar. We had to forget about scoring a Bombay Sapphire martini with Gorgonzola-stuffed olives, for instance, because Giovanna's bar doesn't carry name-brand spirits; but a punchlike Bellini, made with low-test vodka, peach schnapps, white grape juice, and orange juice ($6), proved to be a pleasantly peachy alternative. And although we doubt that Wine Spectator will be dropping by soon to evaluate the small list of Italian reds and whites, we thoroughly enjoyed a $7.50 glass of 2002 Falesco Vitiano (on sale that week at World Market, incidentally, for $11 per bottle), with its smooth blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Sangiovese grapes that perfectly complemented much of the menu. (BYOB, with a $2.50-per-person corking fee, is also OK.)

While such cost-cutting measures (along with the well-intentioned but unpolished service) take Giovanna's out of the fine-dining category, food fans aren't likely to give a fig after sampling the robust fare. Consider, for instance, the arugula-topped carpaccio, a house specialty that arrives at the table looking like a small, colorful still life, casually composed on an oval glass platter. Sliced sheer as tissue paper, the rosy-red filet has a sweet, beefy goodness that was only a starting point for a whispered medley of flavors that ranged from cracked pepper, lemon, and capers to aged Parmesan, olive oil, and truffles. Each bite was an explosion of flavor, and our palates were the grateful survivors.

It's no exaggeration, either, to say that the previously mentioned mussels were among the freshest and most flavorful we've ever tasted and that the creamy, sambuca-scented broth made a premium sop for thick slices of dense Italian bread. (Not that the delicate dipping oil, piqued with roasted garlic, herbs, and cheese, wasn't already above average; in fact, it was a good example of the Kustalas' knack for tweaking the dreary old standbys until they seem new again.)

Other winners included the juicy chicken saltimbocca -- topped with ricotta, sage, and transparent slices of prosciutto -- and an exemplary version of osso buco, a regularly scheduled Thursday-night special of fork-tender veal shank, luxuriating in a hugely concentrated sauce of tomatoes and pan juices. Both dishes came with properly prepared risotto, each al dente rice grain enrobed in truffle-scented creaminess, as well as a well-seasoned toss of crisp green beans, grilled yellow squash, and grilled red pepper.

The only yawner, in fact, was a Saturday-night pork dish, the Costaletta alla Milanese. Although we liked the large breaded pork chop and the sassy oven-dried tomato that topped it, a bed of gluey mashed potatoes and more of those mixed veggies -- this night overcooked -- seemed bland and boring. The promised drizzle of sweet balsamic reduction might have livened things up, but the kitchen apparently forgot to add it.

Of course, the formerly minimalist space that was Mise would seem an odd backdrop to Kustala's comfy Mediterranean cooking, so the new owners have gone to some effort to soften the hard edges, while keeping the ambiance urbane. Bowls of fruit, tall floral arrangements, and the liberal use of ornately framed mirrors contribute to a cozy rusticity, while rows of green Pellegrino bottles sparkle like art glass from windowsills and tops of room dividers. Curved blue-velvet banquettes (well-traveled furnishings that we first spotted at Marlin Kaplan's long-gone Lire, then at Lure Bistro) provide cushy contrast to sleek black tabletops, set with black napkins. Unfortunately, though, an otherwise tasteful floor-to-ceiling curtain between the smoking-permitted bar and the nonsmoking dining room proved inadequate to contain the cigarette emissions. And at least during a Saturday-night visit, a haze of acrid cooking fumes added to the indoor pollution.

Inadequacies in the HVAC system aside, though, sticking around for dessert is not a bad idea. The selection isn't large -- one night, there was only one option; the next night, two -- but the homemade goodies are as over the moon as almost everything else on the menu. This explains how, despite already straining waistbands, we were able to polish off the rich, fudgy, molten-chocolate cake, complete with Nutella frosting and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, as well as how we managed to pack away every morsel of a plump poached pear, enrobed in white chocolate and surrounded by a small ocean of sweet, cinnamon-spiked port-wine syrup. Individual pots of smooth French-press coffee (a Mise tradition) made a fitting final taste.

In affairs of both business and pleasure, it has been said that "three times is the charm." Here's hoping, then, that charming little Giovanna's will finally succeed where others, unfortunately, have failed.

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