Tastes Like Home

Visiting Gusto! is like visiting a favorite uncle, but the food's a lot better.

Gusto! 12022 Mayfield Road, 216-791-9900. 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Proud partners (left to right): Antonio Calandra, Fabio - Salerno, and Ricardo Salerno. - Walter  Novak
Proud partners (left to right): Antonio Calandra, Fabio Salerno, and Ricardo Salerno.
We wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ricardo Salerno’s face aches when he gets home at night. As host, maître d’, and musical entertainment at his Little Italy restaurant, Gusto, the guy just never stops smiling. Like his smart black suits, his jaunty mustache, and the shiny accordion that he straps across his chest at least once each night, that smile seems to brand the avuncular Salerno as a born restaurateur — a man who treats every guest as a favorite nephew or niece, and who can make a meal in his pretty dining room feel like a visit to his home.

No surprise, then, that those guests seem a pretty laid-back lot, basking in the tiny restaurant’s peachy glow, sipping fine Italian wines from the moderately priced wine list, and dining on Executive Chef Michael Annandono’s rustic but finely wrought regional Italian cuisine.

Prior to landing at Gusto, Annandono spent two years soaking up the essence of the Piedmontese cucina in northern Italy; upon his return, he launched the kitchen at downtown’s delightful Osteria di Valerio & Al. Now, at Gusto, his cooking is as soulful and intelligent as ever. But while he continues to rely upon pairing simple pastas or polenta with such exotic ingredients as lobster-truffle sauce and freshly ground wild boar, in this new venue his dishes seem more refined and more tightly focused on the flavors of the Piedmont.

To be sure, old chestnuts like red-sauced spaghetti find their way onto the menu, along with such familiar dishes as pasta e fagioli, saltimbocca, and veal scaloppine. But as Salerno is quick to point out (with a smile, of course), many of Annandono’s most interesting dishes are seldom seen on northeastern Ohio menus. Consider the Pappardelle con Sugo di Cinghiale, for example — long, broad pasta ribbons with the firm, unmistakable elasticity of the homemade, tossed with sweet-tart Bolognese-style tomato sauce made from freshly ground boar’s meat (a bit leaner than farmed pork, with no trace of gaminess) and seasoned with garlic, rosemary, Chianti, and black pepper. Earthy, almost elemental in its flavors, the dish shook up our palate the way Carlo Rizzo rattles a tambourine.

We reluctantly passed on such temptations as lasagna baked with Gulf shrimp, mussels, and tomato cream, and gnocchi in hazelnut pesto, choosing to zero in on an odd-sounding but ultimately successful composition of ink-black, lobster-stuffed ravioli, tossed with a sweet and garlicky lobster-truffle sauce and topped with half a steamed spiny lobster. While it took a little more effort than we hoped to wrest the meat out of its shell, the resulting confluence of colors, flavors, and aromas proved to be worth a minor tussle.

Among starters, baked artichoke soufflé — a celadon rectangle handsomely displayed on a white plate and drizzled with red-pepper oil — played the same sort of savory tune. A little smoky, a little citric, with whispers of nutmeg, eggs, and cream, piqued by the primal sweetness of roasted red pepper, each forkful looked solid enough, but once in the mouth, it vaporized into pure flavor. As a result, it achieved precisely what an appetizer is meant to: It aroused our senses without fatiguing them.

On another visit, we started with an even simpler dish, this time built upon tissue-thin slices of imported prosciutto. Tangy but not salty, with a narrow border of ivory-colored fat that added a nearly unspeakable richness, the meat made a perfect foil for a scattering of sharply cured, imported olives and a grassy rush of extra-virgin olive oil. And while it was admittedly uncomplicated, the commingling of flavors was intensely satisfying: In fact, had we allowed ourselves to gobble down a few more slices of Presti Bakery’s dense, crisp-crusted Italian bread, an entrée might have seemed entirely superfluous.

While Annandono’s tight compositions are obviously the byproduct of a well-calibrated palate, Salerno and the rest of the principals (son and sous-chef Fabio, and dashing partner-waiter Antonio Calandra) are no slouches in the “attention-to-detail” department. Relentlessly attentive and unfailingly polite, Calandra’s good-looking crew of black-garbed, mostly Italian waiters could have been plucked from Central Casting. The peach-and-melon tones of the dining room (as well as the tiny lounge and a third room that’s set aside for private parties and weekend overflow) seem to have been chosen precisely for their ability to flatter the complexion, and candlelight, soft table linens, and translucent swags of peach-colored fabric contribute to the romantic vibe. Even the quality of the drinking water receives special consideration — rigorously filtered and served ice-cold, it possesses a crisp purity that sets it apart from your everyday l’eau d’Erie!

In fact, as far as we can tell, Salerno et al dropped the ball only once: in their choice of seating. Small and uncomfortable, the dining room’s bentwood-style chairs are more suited to an ice-cream parlor than to a dining room where one is likely to linger for hours.

Fortunately, there were ways to take our mind off our discomfort. Nine tiny, tender Frenched lamb chops, in a fruity fig-and-port reduction, did the trick one night; on another, it was a succulent long-boned veal chop (a special), brushed with a woodsy reduction of veal stock and porcini mushrooms. Both dishes came with a triangle of buttery baked polenta, delicately creamy and soft, and fresh green beans which, on a weeknight, were undercooked almost to rawness, but on a weekend were perfectly steamed to a snappy tender-crispness. A refreshing mixed-greens salad, made with frisée, radicchio, spinach, cucumber, and remarkably ripe tomato, in an assertive but well-balanced balsamic vinaigrette sweetened with a hint of shallot, also accompanies all entrées. And a generous pour of silken Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($6), with an intense bouquet of red cherries, paired well with both the lamb and the veal.

Admittedly, the selection of desserts wasn’t riveting — homemade tiramisu, heady with mascarpone, and a nice variety of Italian sorbets, served in hollowed-out frozen-fruit “bowls” — but they were good-tasting, especially when sided with a cup of creamy-headed cappuccino.

And of course, there was “Uncle” Ricardo, smiling and strolling through his dining room, resting his hand on a guest’s shoulder or making the rounds with his squeeze box. He’s as accomplished a musician as he is a restaurateur, and his hands fairly flutter across the accordion as he coaxes out such standards as “My Funny Valentine” or “Arrivederci, Roma.” The guy is clearly having the time of his life, and even if you tried, there is just no way you could keep from smiling back.

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