Osteria Hysteria

A tiny tavern's reputation is growing.

It's already hard to score a table at tiny Osteria di Valerio & Al (408 West St. Clair Avenue, 216-685-9490), and it probably won't be much longer before the whole city has discovered its gracious atmosphere, orchestrated by mâitre d' Marco Rossi, and its marvelous menu, created by Chef Michael Annandono. Annandono trained for several years in northern Italy before returning to Ohio and serving as chef du cuisine at One Walnut, then as executive chef at Lure Bistro; while he enjoyed those gigs, he says he is especially thrilled to be creating authentic Italian cuisine at Osteria (which is Italian for tavern). Maybe that's why a recent lunch left us gasping: Annandono's talent for layering deep, intense flavors into bite-sized explosions is remarkable. Bolognese sauce was enriched by duck, veal, bay leaf, rosemary, nutmeg, and pepper, and a slice of pâté-like, Piedmont-style eggplant flan danced beneath a garnish of sweet red-pepper purée and a drizzle of pungent white truffle oil. For dessert, a simple bowl of fresh berries, tossed with sweet and sassy balsamic syrup, knocked our socks off; a cup of smooth, extra-strength cappuccino was the perfect foil.

As for ambiance, the small room (about a dozen tables and a black marble-topped bar) sits just below street level in the Warehouse District, a happy circumstance that gives it a decidedly urbane feel. And, while the restrained black-and-white decor is classically handsome, the tavern finds its most notable focal point in Rossi himself -- tall, mustached, and with a mellifluous accent -- who seems to float from table to table, making everything just right. Osteria, owned by Valerio Iorio and Al Cefaratti, opened in spring; hours are 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until midnight on Friday, and Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Reservations are a good idea.

Midtown lowdown . . .

The 1956 Kullman dining car is gone forever, destroyed in the blaze that has kept Ruthie and Moe's Diner closed since May. But its companion on the corner of Prospect and East 40th -- the vintage 1938 Jerry O'Mahoney dining car -- has survived, and if all goes as planned, the O'Mahoney will be joined by a custom-designed replacement when the diner reopens sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. "We will definitely be back," says owner Moe Helman. "Same menu, same food, and hopefully, the same customers!" Demolition of parts of the smoke-and-fire-ravaged 12-year-old eatery is nearly complete, and the Helmans have applied for permits for the reconstruction. When it reopens, the diner will have nearly a dozen additional seats -- good news for all of us pining for Ruthie and Moe's thick milk shakes, homemade soups, sandwiches, and freshly cut fries with gravy.

Five-alarm frustrations . . .

The Helmans aren't the only restaurateurs facing fire-related tribulations. In Akron, the venerable Diamond Grille (77 West Market Street, 330-253-0041) -- closed since an August 23 blaze -- is still cleaning up the damage; co-owner Nick Thomas now hopes to reopen the popular steakhouse by the end of September. In Macedonia, Zachary's (759 East Aurora Road, 330-467-3927) was closed by a minor kitchen fire on August 31; owner Sam Sarkisian says the damage is easily repairable, but red tape will delay the reopening of his well-loved deli and breakfast spot for at least another week or two. And in downtown Cleveland, A Cappella (1621 Euclid Avenue, 216-621-7212) reopened September 5 after closing for a month to clean up following a fire in another part of the building.

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