The region's most exciting 10-by-10-foot kitchen may be attached to the back of Pranzo (4066 Erie St., 440-946-7827, pranzowilloughby.com) in Willoughby. Like much of the restaurant, the addition was built by owner Alfio Pinzone. One third of the space is claimed by a wood-fire oven, also built by Pinzone, and another third is dedicated to a fresh pasta station operated by chef Dan Chin.
That leaves just a few square feet in which Pinzone, Chin and chef Frank Iacobucci devise and test recipes. Tucked away from the main kitchen, they operate on intuition, a second sense for Italian cuisine passed down through generations.
In the summer, guests on the back patio can watch the chefs' palpable synergy in action. Any questions about how the food is made are answered before their eyes.
"It's entertainment for the people!" says Chin between cranking out and chopping pasta.
Like their summer patio spectacle, Pranzo is more about showing than telling. Maybe part of that is the food's natural simplicity, where working off a feeling is often inherited instinct.
"Italian food, ultimately, is using very simple ingredients and letting them speak for themselves," says Iacobucci.
Both Pinzone and Iacobucci refer to Little Italy's Murray Hill where they grew up as "the neighborhood," but they wouldn't cross paths for another two decades. Pinzone, whose family hailed from Sicily, identifies more with southern Italian cooking while Iacobucci is influenced by the north. But the differences end at "pranzo," the name given to the main meal in Italy.
"Sunday was the most important day of the week," remembers Pinzone. "You had to be home and you would cook all day. We never had bread from the store, we never had pasta from the store. Fruits and vegetables came from the garden."
His family ran the Mayfield Pizza and Deli until it became Porcelli's Ristorante. During his teenage years, Pinzone worked for the new owners, who adopted a handful of his father's recipes. At the time same, he was learning traditional Italian cooking by way of the family from Rome.
Iacobucci too had cooking in his blood. His relatives owned Iacobucci Market and Fiocca Bakery.
Pinzone first opened Pranzo on Vine Street, but Burgers-N-Beer owner Doug Ciancibello persuaded him to consider downtown Willoughby. He found an empty storefront and, putting his construction background to use, completely renovated it.
"He built all this with his bare hands," says Iacobucci. "He laid the floor, he poured the concrete."
Today, Pranzo takes the same approach to its food. All pasta and sauce is made in-house. The signature pappardelle caprese pasta combines fresh mozzarella, garlic, tomato, basil and olive oil. A popular lobster dish features pasta ribbons and whole lobster tail in a sauce made from lobster stock, heavy cream and a little Prosecco.
Historical photos of Little Italy line the wall of the dining room, such as a sepia-toned 1938 shot of crowds gathering after Mass.
"I don't feel like I'm carrying on a legacy," says Pinzone. "I feel like it's my duty."