Photo by Douglas Trattner
Sometimes, a guy can’t seem to catch a break. In July of 2019, Scott Nathanson was ready to call it quits. His 20-year-old Italian restaurant Scotti’s was hemorrhaging money thanks to year-long road work that closed the I-90 exit at East 185th Street. After going public with his announcement on Facebook, the restaurant was inundated with enough support from loyal customers that Nathanson was able to weather the storm.
Of course, little did he know that a more destructive tempest was just around the bend. Covid was another blow for Scotti’s, which pivoted to takeout like every other restaurant that was able to do so. But then came the lengthy Water Pollution Control project that tore up the street. Next came the Streetscape Improvement Project, which isn’t slated to be completed for another six months.
“It is what it is,” Nathanson says matter-of-factly. “There’s nothing I can do about it but weather the storm. When it’s all said and done, the area is going to look really nice.”
When you live and/or work on East 185th, you learn to grow inured to the ups and downs. Every time it feels as though the street is primed for big things, there’s another recession, pandemic or roadwork project to stop the progress in its tracks.
But this time feels different. In addition to longstanding neighborhood anchors like the Lithuanian American Club, Chili Peppers, Gus’s Diner, Muldoon’s, Cebars Euclid Tavern and Scotti’s, the street has gained relative newcomers like Irie Jamaican Kitchen, Cleveland Brewery, the Standard, MoMo's Restaurant and the redeveloped La Salle theater. Soon, Charter House will open in the former Bistro 185 space.
Residents and stakeholders in the area are more optimistic now than they have been in decades. One of those stakeholders is Laura Bala, a commercial revitalization consultant to the City of Cleveland. While working for Ohio City Near West Development back in the early aughts, Bala not only experienced the rebirth of that neighborhood in real time, she helped make it happen through pet projects like Market 25 and Open Air in Market Square.
“The reason I’m optimistic is because there is so much love for that street,” Bala explains. “I had worked for Ohio City when that neighborhood had really gone downhill, and this neighborhood is starting at a much more stable point. Now, East 185th Street is ready to go.”
One of the final nuisances to endure is the $12M streetscape project, which stretches from I-90 all the way to Lake Erie. When that is done, East 185th Street truly should earn the moniker Cleveland’s Next Hot Neighborhood.
“The demand is there, the visuals are turning around now, and you have incredible development surrounding it,” Bala asserts. “The pieces of the puzzle are there and it’s a matter of giving it the push in the right direction.”
In terms of neighborhood amenities, Scotti’s sits right there at the top. The Italian American restaurant has a great bar, open kitchen and comfortable dining room. Prices are well below market rates for from-scratch, hearty and delicious food. One of the ways Nathanson keeps his prices so low is by not accepting credit cards, so consider yourself warned.
The last time I dined at Scotti’s was in 2001, when I reviewed the place for the Free Times. (See the original review at the end of the article.) Coincidentally enough, when I asked Nathanson for a recommendation this time around he said the exact same thing that he did 21 years ago: “Get any of the veal dishes. They are all amazing.”
Meals start with baskets of warm, house-baked focaccia with herbed balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Hefty mushrooms ($7) are stuffed with sausage and herbs and roasted until hot and savory. Hungarian peppers ($7) are split, seeded, stuffed with sausage and judiciously capped with provolone before going into the oven. It was Nathanson’s calzones ($7-$12) that originally drew me to the restaurant all those years ago and I’m happy to report that they’re still worth the trip. Unlike the gut-bombs served elsewhere, these feature a light, crisp dough and any of a dozen different filling combinations. A dish of warm marinara is served on the side.
True to his word, the veal parmigiana ($19) is “amazing,” with thin, crispy breaded schnitzels capped with melted cheese and bright, flavorful tomato sauce. A side of al dente pasta and sauce is included.
In spring, when that interminable road work finally ends, there might be no better place to celebrate than on Scotti’s charming back patio, where a diner still can enjoy a draft beer for $3, a gin and tonic for $7.50, and a bottle of good Italian red wine for $24.
Scotti’s Italian Eatery
882 E. 185th St., Cleveland