Let Them Eat Cake

The Italian Café's ambitious plans begin with one perfect dessert.

The Italian Café 20153 Van Aken Boulevard, Shaker Heights 216-752-9995; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, till 10 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Bar stays open later.
Executive Chef Pete Corfias shows off his lemon-herb grouper and eggplant rollatini. - Walter  Novak
Executive Chef Pete Corfias shows off his lemon-herb grouper and eggplant rollatini.
Somewhere within the Italian Café's bland beige walls lurks an enticing restaurant. We savored it in a bowl of buttery steamed mussels and again in a trio of lush, sausage-stuffed cannelloni -- and we nearly fell off our chair over it in a slice of freshly made Frangelico cake, as sweetly sophisticated as any fine European torte.

So we know that it's in there, even if it is still partly buried beneath two decades of mediocrity and bad habits. There is reason for optimism: A new owner, William Van Aken, bought the landmark café at the eastern terminus of the Van Aken Rapid Transit line a year ago and installed Pete Corfias, former sous-chef at Giovanni's, as executive chef. A new management team and a lengthy new menu followed. Then Van Aken set about planning for expansion and upgrades to the space, which are penciled in for early 2006.

Those improvements can't come fast enough. Right now, about the best that can be said of the monotonous decor is that it's "timeless" -- and not in a good way. Rather, with its rainbow of brown hues, brass-and-Capiz wall sconces, and soundtrack of opera, Sinatra, and traditional Italian melodies, the café seems adrift in time, a featureless cipher with all the ambiance of a hospital waiting room.

Upscale appointments like white tablecloths, black cloth napkins, and tiny oil lamps are steps in the right direction. But flimsy flatware, mismatched plates, and sticky, fingerprinted salt shakers manage to undercut even the best of intentions. And diners with smoke sensitivities especially should beware: Even seated in the cig-free section of the dining room, well removed from the open bar, we still went home with the smell of smoke clinging to our hair and clothing.

Nonetheless, we can sympathize with Van Aken and Corfias. Like the QE2, an established neighborhood restaurant can't just be turned around on a dime; judging by the mostly middle-aged and older clientele, many of the regulars don't seek out trendy decor or challenging preparations -- or, for that matter, even firm, al dente pasta. Keeping the old-timers happy while attracting a crew of fresh faces is going to be the Italian Café's major challenge.

For now, though, Corfias' big menu contains few surprises, stocked with standard Italian offerings such as sausage-stuffed peppers, calamari, cheese pizza, fettuccine Alfredo, and chicken Parmesan. Starters (generally ample enough to share) are pegged at $7 to $10, à la carte salads check in at $4 to $6, and entrée prices range from $12 to $18. All the pastas, except the lasagna, can also be had as half-portions, at $7 or $8 each -- a boon for seniors, kids, and anyone counting calories.

Meals get off to a good start with the arrival of the breadbasket, filled with warm, thick slices of Italian bread and a passel of bite-sized, fried dough balls (an Italian Café tradition), dredged in butter and seasoned with garlic. Light, tender, yet just a little crisp and chewy, these are carbs worth breaking a diet for; even more important, they help put a tasty spin on what seems to be becoming an increasingly perfunctory part of dining out.

The little dough gems made a particularly good match to our à la carte salads -- the ample house version, with mixed greens, sliced pepperoni, and shredded mozzarella, sided with a well-balanced Italian dressing; and the smallish "traditional" Caesar, in an Italian-style dressing with no hint of the traditional anchovies.

Among appetizers, the long, slender hot peppers, stuffed with lean, spicy Italian sausage and topped with melted mozzarella, made us smile, even while we wiped away the tears. For once, this ubiquitous dish was truly hot, and it set us to sniffling like a bunch of cokeheads. The peppers were paired with a bright, sugary "Parmesan marinara" that tasted like nothing so much as sweetened, stewed tomatoes. But while that same sauce proved a cloying complement to a dreary lasagna we would order on another visit, it provided a soothing grace note to the spicy peppers and left our taste buds feeling well exercised but jolly.

A second app, sausage-stuffed "cannelloni" (actually not cannelloni, but lasagna noodles rolled around the filling), offered a sassy variation on the spicy-pepper theme. Again, the Italian sausage contributed heat and a big hit of dark fennel flavor. But now, a rich, complex, and harmonious caponata of eggplant, diced tomato, and capers added a well-rounded counterpoint, and made this dish -- one of the daily specials -- seem like a shoo-in for a berth on the regular menu.

The winning streak continued with an order of steamed mussels, a popular dish that can be nevertheless a true test of a kitchen's mettle, often falling victim to overcooking, odd or overbearing broths, and/or a frank lack of freshness. But not this pure-tasting version, composed of fresh, buttery mussels in a simple white-wine broth kissed with garlic; a chiffonade of fresh basil and some halved cherry tomatoes added wholesome buzz.

When it came time to sample some main courses, though, we found a decidedly mixed bag. The best choice was probably the signature white pizza, its tender, traditional crust modestly topped with Alfredo sauce, small grilled chicken cubes, slightly greasy bacon bits, and a few green specks of aspiration. Not a great pie, we decided, but not bad.

A lobster-topped filet mignon, chosen from the list of daily specials, made a decent meal too, particularly considering its more-than-reasonable $17 price tag. Sure, the accompanying mashed potatoes were on the watery side, and the béarnaise fell a bit flat. But the beef was tender and cooked to order, and the lobster was sweet and surprisingly plentiful, leaving us little room for complaint.

On the other hand, chicken Française -- two thin, almost unnaturally tender filets of egg-battered and pan-fried breast meat, served with burnt-tasting spinach and a mound of wet, thoroughly mishandled "risotto" -- set us to grumbling quite a lot. Same for the pasty, overcooked gnocchi, in a bland, pink, pseudo-Bolognese sauce, and that limp, uninspired lasagna, bested by its super-sweet tomato sauce. "This is the kind of thing your English grandmother would come up with, if she was trying to cook Italian," sneered a well-seasoned companion.

After the ho-hum entrées, we weren't particularly anxious to explore the dessert menu. So when our Thursday-night server presented the bill without a mention of it, we were happy enough to just pay up and split. But on the following Saturday night, we bit the bullet and answered in the affirmative when a staffer asked if we were interested in dessert. It turned out to be a brilliant decision -- otherwise, we would have missed the café's equally brilliant Frangelico cake, a dainty but flavor-packed combo of liqueur-soaked ladyfingers encased in a melt-in-the-mouth frosting of butter cream and crushed almond toffee. The oh-so-Continental balance of restrained sweetness and haunting hazelnut, together with the almost evaporative texture of the frosting, made it a standout. If only we could have scored a cup of cappuccino or espresso to go with, our bliss would have been complete. Alas, the café has no such provisions at present.

Happily, we understand that the upcoming expansion plans include adding an espresso maker and upgrading Corfias' kitchen. If that means the chef and his team will be able to create more dishes as delightful and delicious as that cake, turning this restaurant around just might be a breeze.

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