No Noodling

'Stino da Napoli makes simple Italian food simply wonderfully.

'Stino da Napoli 19070 Old Detroit Road, Rocky River 440-331-3944; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.
The gnocchi alone is worth the wait for a seat. - Walter  Novak
The gnocchi alone is worth the wait for a seat.
Chefs who inject a bit of whimsy or reasonably calculated experimentation into their menus aren't necessarily on the wrong track. Dining out should be fun, after all.

On the other hand, The People's Law of Dining demands that, above all else, the food's gotta taste good. So to the extent that those chefs decide that their roads to success must be paved with excess, weirdness, and other misguided stabs at artistry, a derailment seems nearly inevitable.

From what we've seen lately, there's a lot of that kind of cooking going on, produced by a cult of chefs who worship at the altar of self-expression while turning their backs on basic culinary truths. And it sometimes seems as if we're grooming a matching demographic of dumbed-down diners to go with them, those who have been led to believe that peculiarity is a virtue and that "simple" equals boring and banal.

But all is not yet lost. For proof, direct your attention to 'Stino da Napoli, a handsomely appointed jewel box of an Italian restaurant in Rocky River, where chef-owner Agostino Iacullo's kitchen turns out spot-on preparations of simple standards, and does it so well, so intelligently, that it makes a jaded diner want to weep for joy.

Chances are, though, you already know about 'Stino. After all, the place has been around since 1991 (which in and of itself says a mouthful), and judging by the crowds that cram into the tiny foyer waiting for a table to open up, most of the West Side is already tromping in here on a regular basis, hoping to commune with Chef 'Stino via his finely tuned food.

I drive by the place at least once a month and have never snared one of its 48 seats until recently. (Believe it when staffers say that reservations are essential.) So on the off chance you haven't been -- or haven't been for a while -- allow me to whet your appetite.

Gnocchi would be a good place to begin. (The word, incidentally, translates as "knots." To recall the meaning, as well as the pronunciation, remember Pinocchio, the little boy who was carved from a knot of wood.) As with most deceptively uncomplicated dishes, a lot can go wrong with these little burls of potato dough. Made by machine, they can turn out tough and leaden. Made by hand, they can arrive at the table pasty and raw. Only rarely are they done just right -- as they are at 'Stino's -- so that they're solid yet nearly insubstantial, and so ephemeral that they evaporate on the tongue like spun sugar. Add an order of almost equally ethereal meatballs, made in the traditional fashion with a blend of ground beef, pork, and bread crumbs, and let the joyful weeping begin.

Of course, with any pasta dish, the other half of the equation is the sauce; in this arena, the possible abominations are too numerous to even mention. Suffice it to say that 'Stino does the seemingly impossible, finding the exact balance of flavors for every sauce that comes out of his kitchen and partnering them with their dream dates -- whether pasta, meat, or fish -- with the intuition of a born matchmaker.

(The chef does brisk business, too, selling five styles of his sauces by the jar; spicy Arrabiatta, smoky Vesuvio, sweet-tart Filetto di Pomodori, bright Carrettiera, and rich Ferdinando II can be snagged by the bottle for at-home use at the restaurant, at several local Giant Eagles, and at Gallucci's Italian Foods on Euclid Avenue.)

The same attention to detail is obvious in the kitchen's two salad dressings -- bright lemon and brighter raspberry vinaigrettes -- which are sparingly applied to the humble house salads. A painstaking balance of tart and fruity flavors, precisely egged on by just the right amount of salt and pepper, and -- wham! -- what you have is an experience best defined as "simple perfection."

And for those of you wondering "Why is this woman going on about the freaking salad dressing as if it were a culinary tour de force?" -- try this little experiment: Keep track of how many salads you eat between now and the next time you come across a dressing that is neither too tart, too cloying, nor too bland, or that doesn't obliterate the greens below it with its own misplaced sense of grandeur. You may well need both hands, and maybe even a foot or two, to tally them up.

In fact, the only dish at 'Stino's that wasn't startling in its "rightness" was a calamari starter, a toss of opalescent, unbattered rings and tentacles, sautéed and served in a splash of buttery lemon-and-wine broth. A trifle bland and just a wee bit rubbery, the calamari alone fell short of excellence.

To drink with all this goodness, the unembellished wine list presents 28 bottles, four half-bottles, and five offerings by the glass, as well as a collection of seven beers that includes Peroni, Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, and Bud Light. No spirits are served, but the orange or lemon San Pellegrino can make a surprisingly refreshing change of pace from the usual cocktails and martinis.

While minimalism isn't usually associated with Italian American restaurants, where garlic, basil, olives, capers, heavy sauces, and assorted cheeses tend to run amok, the concept certainly isn't foreign to 'Stino's, particularly among the dozen secondi piatti options. Three slim, almost perfectly uniform veal medallions; an eight-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast; or a modest portion of pearly tilapia star in almost all the dishes, and a choice of a house salad or a side of pasta comes on the side, on a separate plate. (For those seeking variety, there's also a baked sausage dish and a Thursday-night special featuring beef tenderloin.)

As a result, at first glance our piccatina di vitello al limone (a petite trio of lightly floured veal medallions, sautéed and simply sauced with lemon, butter, and Chablis) looked almost spartan, settled alone on its big white plate. But it took only a bite or two to realize that, between the meltingly tender veal and the intensely focused sauce, no other garnishes, go-withs, or fillers were necessary here.

When another night's companion ordered the tilapia alla carrettiera (a fresh, dainty filet, lightly floured and attentively sautéed, then lightly sauced with olive oil, diced tomato, and a flurry of fresh basil), he too wondered at the modest portion size. But he too went on to discover one of the culinary world's basic truths: When ingredients are fresh, preparation is exacting, and flavors are tightly concentrated, even a modest portion can prove profoundly satisfying. (Conversely, even huge servings of crappy food can leave a diner feeling empty. Ergo, perhaps, America's hunger for supersizing.)

This, of course, is not a suggestion to skip dessert. On the contrary, when the waitress comes 'round with the well-appointed tray filled with an assortment of freshly baked temptations like cannoli, tiramisu, and ricotta and rum cakes, only misguided souls won't jump at the opportunity for a final taste of something sweet. Remember, we started with the premise that dining out should be fun. And most of the portions are ideally sized for sharing.

Our own sweet diversions included the pouffy ricotta cake, a dual pleasure of moist yellow cake and dairy-rich cheese, arranged in two tidy layers and topped with a whipped-cream-like frosting; and the coconut cake, with a texture just shy of custard, topped with whipped cream and a shaggy tangle of shredded coconut. The cakes, it turns out, were baked by Jill Iacullo, the chef's wife, but 'Stino himself does the frosting. To go with, staffers make an exemplary cappuccino, with a head of froth nearly as dense and sturdy as meringue.

It's not that we don't dig experimentation. But when it's a choice between self-important "creativity" and competence, we'll come down on the side of competence every time.

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