Located halfway between the Warehouse District and the land of Oz, Circo and its attached bar, Zibibbo, are unlike anything else in Cleveland. The walls of the 8,000-square-foot complex glow with orange, gold, and purple pigments. Massive pillars, painted an aggressive shade of azure, sprout tentacles in the form of sleek cantilevered lamps with red, orange, yellow, and blue swirled-glass shades. Tall orange torch&eagrave;res rise up like rows of Martian sunflowers from the intricate terrazzo floors. The chartreuse ceiling supports an impressive lighted glass sculpture, its twisted organic shape reminiscent of something by Dale Chihuly, or possibly H.P. Lovecraft. Even the restrooms, with their custom-made faucets and wastebaskets, and wall pockets stuffed with real orchids, are unique.
Despite its compelling decor and large size, however, the dining room manages to project a surprisingly intimate feel, thanks to its division into several distinct seating areas. Along one side of the room runs a line of spacious booths, divided by jagged "mountain ranges" of brushed aluminum and snuggled up against a wavy glass partition that helps separate Circo from the bar. Laced with fiber optics and embedded with colored glass "gems," the glass half-wall shimmers with a green light that slowly fades to violet, then brightens to neon blue. The effect -- rather like the Northern Lights -- is mesmerizing. On the other side of the room, a row of cushy banquettes beckons: Outfitted with oversized pillows shaped like geometry problems, the seating looks almost irresistible. Meanwhile, a double row of tables occupies the center of the room. For the most part, these tables cluster around the blue pillars, with each table set into a cozy individual nook formed by more partitions of jewel-studded glass.
Free-form glass vases spill botanical exotica onto each white-linen-dressed table. Votive candles glow softly. Wide leather sling chairs encourage diners to sit back and ogle their surroundings.
Is it any wonder that we could scarcely carry on a meaningful conversation with one another -- what with our attention darting from one vision to the next -- let alone concentrate on what might be arriving on our plates?
Of course, all this stimulation creates an enormous challenge for a chef charged with wowing diners with his food. We eat first with our eyes, all right, but what to do if our eyes are otherwise occupied? It is for this very reason that many fine restaurants prefer to keep their dining rooms relatively sedate, letting nothing distract from guests' appreciation of the dishes set before them. In such a setting, culinary nuance can shine forth, and delicate flavors and textures can predominate.
But subtlety is obviously a lost cause in a place like Circo. On the other hand, going head-to-head with the decor for diners' attention can be risky business. In an attempt to out-shout the ambience, it would be entirely too easy for an amateurish chef to resort to creating strident and confusing dishes, figuratively grabbing at diners' lapels with a jumble of ingredients, flavors, and textures.
To his everlasting credit, Executive Chef Matt Gambatese avoids the pitfalls of either extreme. While his robust contemporary Italian cooking, with its sit-up-and-take-notice combinations of flavors and textures, will never be described as precious, neither is it jumbled or overwhelming. Instead, even the most complex dishes -- say, two fat filets of mild-flavored Carolina black grouper split horizontally and layered with thin slices of prosciutto ham and lots of sharp melted goat cheese, then served with a pile of thyme-, rosemary-, and basil-scented ratatouille and a big crescent-shaped tuille cracker of zesty Parmesan cheese -- invariably come together in a well-thought-out whole that not only makes sense, but tastes good, too.
The chef says he also relies on artful presentation -- with a focus on shape and color -- to hold diners' attention. For example, he creates a tall, eye-catching appetizer of Crab Napolitana out of neat, circular layers of crisp breaded eggplant, sweet shredded crabmeat, and a mixture of artichokes and spinach, surrounded by a deep red pool of charred tomato sauce, all on a stark white plate, resulting in a dish that visually holds its own in the powerful room.
Gambatese's menu is large, with 10 appetizers, 1 soup, 3 specialty salads, and 17 entrées. Many of the dishes focus on seafood, which would be expected, given that Gambatese worked his magic for several years at the nearby Blue Point Grille and Rocky River's Salmon Dave's before jumping ship to join Circo owner Gene Zannoni in November. Portions are large, too, and prices are on the high end of moderate, with most appetizers in the $7 to $12 range and the majority of main dishes in the neighborhood of $14 to $24.
Two of the first-course selections, especially, are noteworthy, both for their satisfying size and robust flavor. The first -- the Polenta Tart -- paired a large, thick triangle of incredibly creamy grilled polenta with a mound of diced grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, and wild mushrooms, and ringed them with a drizzle of aromatic basil pesto and a dab of thick, savory balsamic reduction. The second -- Gamberetti Crocante -- was equally gratifying, with its modern variation on risotto. In this case, a large rectangle of lightly breaded and fried arborio rice came stuffed with lots of melted mozzarella cheese, and settled on a colorful bed of green basil aïoli and red radicchio leaves. As if that weren't enough, the rice was topped with three big, juicy, perfectly sautéed shrimp that literally burst with flavor.
Still, as good as these primo plates were, it was impossible for us to resist the main attractions. Besides the voluptuous stuffed black grouper -- the namesake Rospo Rostini Gambatese -- sure bets include an outstanding Veal Chop Marsala, a mouthwateringly succulent grilled and roasted rib chop, so tender that I could nearly cut it with my fork. The large, thick chop, done to a creamy medium-rare, was neatly stuffed with plenty of wild mushrooms and bits of caramelized pancetta, then placed atop a cloud of Gorgonzola-streaked risotto and sided by stalks of stir-fried rapini, which were unfortunately a little tough. A ring of sweet, golden Marsala wine sauce made a wonderfully rich final touch.
Among the pastas, I favored the unusual combination of housemade al dente tomato ravioli, stuffed with shredded lobster and topped with a remarkable dill-flavored cream sauce that was full of crisp, anise-scented fennel-bulb "slaw," fresh sweet peas, and bits of sweet-and-sharp tomato. Again, while there was plenty going on here as far as flavor notes and textures, it all pulled together into a chorus of complex but still comprehensible good taste.
For imbibing, the bartenders at the attached Zibibbo -- with its curvaceous blue-pearl granite bar and live jazz every Thursday through Saturday night -- whip up all the types of cocktails and after-dinner drinks that a diner could desire. And although we didn't spot any bargains on it, the restaurant's sizable wine list features Californian and Italian red, white, and sparkling varieties that include something for every taste.
Entrées come with a silver bread tray filled with slices of dense potato bread, flecked with caramelized onions and shredded Parmesan cheese, and a perfect house salad of cool, mixed mesclun greens and Gorgonzola, tossed in a sweet, light balsamic vinaigrette. Friendly and professional servers, and their cadre of assistants, kept our table crumbed and our water glasses filled to the brim, promptly removed soiled dishes, and replaced used flatware before the arrival of each course. However, the kitchen seemed to have some trouble turning orders around during both of our visits, and the wait between courses was occasionally lengthy.
The restaurant's pop-art orange-and-lavender dessert menu reminded us of an artifact from a 1960s ice cream parlor, but the treats inside were thoroughly modern. Out-of-the-ordinary offerings by Pastry Chef Candice Rego included a scoop of creamy roasted fig ice cream, flecked with chewy, sweet chunks of fruit; and scoops of fragrant, colorful boysenberry and opal-basil sorbet. Another winner was a big Bartlett pear, chosen at its peak of ripeness, poached in port, stuffed with mascarpone and chunks of chocolate, and served with a scoop of tangy pear sorbet, a handful of sugared, toasted walnuts, and curls of white chocolate, all on a thick port reduction syrup.
But for flavor and eye-appeal, it would be hard to beat the Lemon Circolo: an ample tart of smooth, tongue-tingling lemon custard in a sweet shortbread-like shell, topped with a fluff of whipped cream and a bit of candied citrus. While the sweet was delicious, it was the presentation that was riveting: The shimmering yellow custard, centered on a big white platter and surrounded by bright ringlets of candied lemon and orange zest, and a dusting of yellow and orange colored sugar, looked like a festive Mediterranean party on a plate. I simply couldn't take my eyes off of it.
And in a place like Circo, that's saying a mouthful.