Crazy Like a Fox

Cucina Pazzo is a logical alternative for suburban diners.

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Cucina Pazzo Ristorante. 7995 Darrow Road, Twinsburg
330-963-6161 Chicken Aglio (lunch): $6.95
Chichen Marsala (lunch): $6.95
Prosciutto e Melone: $6.95
House Special Bruschetta: $6.95
Stuffed Banana Peppers: $6.95
Soup del Giorno (cup): $2.25
Italian Wedding Soup (cup): $2.50
Pasta Genovese: $9.95
Chicken Parmesan: $11.95
Blue-Cheese-Encrusted Sea Bass: $18.95
Grilled Rack of Lamb: $23.95
Tiramisu: $4.95
Cannoli: $3.95
Cucina Pazzo, a needed face-lift for the suburban culinary landscape. - Walter  Novak
Cucina Pazzo, a needed face-lift for the suburban culinary landscape.
Hail to thee, suburbia! We honor you for your endless shopping plazas, multiple mini-malls, and innumerable drugstores. Of course, your smooth, broad highways have paved over our shady country lanes and have given us easy access to nothing more interesting, from a culinary perspective, than chain pizzerias, fast-food joints, and generic family restaurants oozing phony charm.

All in all, it's a pretty bleak landscape for a hungry soul in search of meaningful sustenance. No wonder the suburbs' few privately owned restaurants, serving real food in friendly dining rooms, are becoming true cultural treasures.

Happily, such places still exist hereabouts, and gustatory treasure seekers need search no further than Twinsburg's Cucina Pazzo. The gracious Italian restaurant, whose name means Crazy Kitchen, got its start in 1996 when Executive Chef Joe Sabo and manager Frank Langos teamed up to fight generic grub and give diners the type of experience usually reserved for those lucky ducks swimming in the big ponds of the city.

Sabo has since moved on, leaving the kitchen under the care of Pittsburgh Culinary School graduate Lee DeGigio, who comes to Twinsburg by way of Cleveland's and West Palm Beach's Ritz-Carltons. DeGigio says no major menu changes are in the works, although he hopes to emphasize creative daily specials, and he will be adding an in-house baker to his team.

While menu selections include staples like Chicken Parmesan and spaghetti with meatballs, the restaurant deserves credit for going beyond basics with flavorful alternatives like blue-cheese-encrusted sea bass, savory rack of lamb, and an impeccable version of chicken Marsala. Portions are generous, prices are moderate, flavors are generally on the mark, and service is well-intentioned if not relentlessly professional. The full bar and a surprisingly large selection of red and white wines, in a variety of price ranges, complement the cooking and make this crazy kitchen an eminently rational choice on nights that call for something a little special.

Although the restaurant is tucked into a tiny, undistinguished strip plaza, the spacious interior is warm and attractive. What could have been a cavernous, impersonal space has been broken into a series of intimate rooms, separated by etched-glass panels and French doors, but united by handsomely carved woodwork and sunny yellow-painted walls. Ornately framed pictures of the Roman countryside add more visual interest, and recorded music — everything from light jazz to Italian opera — creates a relaxing soundtrack.

Cucina Pazzo is a popular lunch destination with white-collar types from Twinsburg's nearby industrial parks, and the midday menu focuses on casual foods like salads, sandwiches, and soups, although a few more substantial entrées are included. But in the evening, out come the white tablecloths and candles, and the kitchen heats up by several degrees.

Instead of the chicken fingers and loaded potato skins that mark the lunch offerings, the dinner menu includes dishes like spicy grilled banana peppers stuffed with lean Italian sausage and creamy ricotta cheese, and a delicious "house special" bruschetta brushed with garlicky pesto and loaded with roasted Roma tomatoes and crumbled feta and blue cheeses.

Since this is the height of melon season, we recently gave the Prosciutto e Melone appetizer a shot, with mixed results. As we had hoped, the crescents of cantaloupe were sweet and juicy, although there weren't enough of them to balance out the mounds of lean, unusually thick-sliced ham that accompanied them. The disappointment was in the ham itself, which lacked the deep-cured flavor we expect from real Parma prosciutto: This meat, we sniffed, was only a step or two away from boiled deli ham.

We were more impressed with the kitchen's version of Italian Wedding Soup: a savory broth filled with tiny beef meatballs and bits of tender vegetables. A moderately thick cream of broccoli soup — the Zuppa del Giorno — was also good, with lots of broccoli and specks of smoky bacon. Both soups arrived steaming hot, a plus even in the summer.

The price of most entrées includes a small house salad, while the less-expensive pasta dishes come à la carte. A fairly standard mix of crisp iceberg and tender leaf lettuces, the salad was sided by a small plastic cup of housemade dressing. We've sampled both the slightly sweet poppyseed dressing and the delicate red-wine vinaigrette over the course of several visits and have found them both quite nice.

A warm loaf of crisp-crusted French bread accompanied the salads, along with a shallow plate of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and freshly grated cheese for dipping. But although the bread was served in an elegant silver basket, the butter came in those regrettable little plastic tubs. As nice as this place is in so many ways, we have to wonder why the staff doesn't take the time to place the butter on a plate and dress the salads in the kitchen, eliminating the pernicious table trash. Because little things like these speak volumes about a restaurant, we hope management rethinks this practice.

Over the course of several visits, we have sampled a broad selection of meat, fish, pasta, and Italian-restaurant standards that generally have been very good indeed. A grilled rack of lamb was one of the best meals, with four thick, tender double-boned chops roasted medium-rare as ordered. The chops were carefully fanned around a veritable mountain of chunky mashed potatoes that got a powerful boost from a slew of creamy roasted garlic cloves and from an aromatic flagpole of fresh seared rosemary that flew over its summit. The complementary tastes of the juicy lamb, garlicky potatoes, and herbs melded deliciously into one classically delightful dish.

Another favorite was a mighty portion of Pasta Genovese: threads of delicate capellini pasta buried beneath an avalanche of chopped tomatoes, sliced black olives, quartered artichoke hearts, and sautéed mushrooms. The veggies had been tossed with an intensely flavored sauce of garlic, basil, cheese, and white wine before being loaded onto the pasta, where they merged into another lovely blend of textures.

A thick filet of blue-cheese-encrusted sea bass, another house specialty, was also good, although just slightly overcooked. The mild-flavored, creamy white fish had been topped with a crisp cap of savory seasoned bread crumbs and crumbled blue cheese, then baked a little past perfection. It came with a savory side of capellini pasta tossed with olive oil, fresh garlic, parsley, and pecorino Romano cheese, and a portion of steamed and buttered fresh vegetables that were, in contrast to the sea bass, just a minute or two shy of proper doneness.

Our only real disappointment was a serving of Chicken Parmesan. Although the chicken itself was moist and tender, it suffered from a dramatically dull and slightly soggy breading. It gained a little flavor from a thick layer of mozzarella cheese that topped it, but even the addition of a bright and chunky marinara sauce wasn't enough to fully revive this tired dish.

(I don't mean to pick on Chicken Parmesan. It's not that I don't like it: Some versions are quite good, with lots of flavor and a crunchy crust, and it's a great introductory dish for those space aliens among us who haven't yet tried Italian cooking. It's just that it's so darn ubiquitous. I fear that, if all the portions served in a single day by Northeast Ohio restaurants were laid end-to-end, they might reach all the way to Wooster, where most of them would be immediately trampled by buggies or put to use as tire patches. Then again, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing . . .)

Finding ourselves so fond of the Pasta Genovese, we tried a similar dish — Chicken Aglio — during a lunch visit. Here, the kitchen topped a huge pile-up of linguine with succulent strips of sautéed chicken breast and roasted red pepper, thick chunks of meaty mushrooms, deep-green leaves of fresh spinach, garlic, and white wine, and sprinkled it with freshly grated cheese, creating another mouthwatering plate of pasta.

Our lunch visit also revealed an absolutely divine Chicken Marsala: three thick but melt-in-your-mouth tender filets of crisp breaded chicken, topped with loads of husky sautéed mushroom slices and a rich, translucent Marsala wine sauce. Slightly sweet, very savory, and full of flavor, the dish was just about perfect. A veal version, made with portobello mushrooms, puts in an appearance on the dinner menu; it's on our "must try" list for future visits.

At the present, dessert choices include spumoni and an assortment of shipped-in cakes and pastries. We enjoyed a rich but light-textured tiramisu and tasty finger-sized cannoli stuffed with sweetened ricotta cheese and studded with chocolate chips and sliced almonds. DeGigio promises that diners can expect a larger variety of homemade goodies in the near future.

So, hail to thee, suburbia, and your little pockets of resistance to franchised sameness. As long as locally owned restaurants like Cucina Pazzo continue to thrive, there's hope that honest cooking and authentic dining will, too.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].

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