What's Fresh At: LockKeepers

Venetian-inspired seasonal twists and a new downtown restaurant in the works

It's the time of year when Alberto Leandri's mind is fixated on the notoriously fleeting early spring harvest of ramps, whether pickled, grilled or perched atop a plate of cavatelli. As executive chef of LockKeepers (8001 Rockside Rd., 216-524-9404, lockkeepers.com), his featured dish pairs the pasta with a splash of olive oil and two cheeses.

"I like to keep things simple," he repeats over and over, opting for unfussy and memorable instead. "It might be the strong flavor they have, the garlic taste. I think it's perfect for pasta. Unfortunately, their time is too short."

After all, by early June the short-lived ramp season is already over.

"In a few weeks, it will all change again."

Foraged treasures like ramps remind Leandri of his childhood in Venice, Italy, where he would spend his summer days scouting for wild mushrooms near the Alps. Growing up in Venice, Leandri quickly grew dependent on farmers' markets, which were the primary source of provisions. The seasonal harvests became instrumental to his cooking and have carried over to the rustic cuisine of LockKeepers.

"Stands are all over; you find whatever's in season," Leandri recalls. "There, we don't go to restaurants often because we're born and raised to cook at home."

That's why, naturally, when the chef arrived at LockKeepers three years ago, his instinct was to run as close to a scratch kitchen as possible. Every morning, one of his cooks is in at 5 a.m. to make the fresh pasta for the day.

This spring, for a sunny twist, limoncello fettucine is served with shrimp, spring onions and asparagus. His tortellini is flavored with spinach and filled with a creamy mix of Parmesan, house-made ricotta and spring peas. Leeks top the latter, which rests on a tomato sauce.

Peas, a professed seasonal favorite of the chef, also appear with a rack of lamb, alongside asparagus risotto, mint and lemon zest.

Regular visits to his hometown result in Venetian inspiration stateside. "This is my mother's recipe," he says of a traditional Italian dish of eggplant rollatini. It features local basil, an herb of choice for Leandri.

Of course, with summer on the horizon, Leandri eagerly awaits the arrival of tomatoes. While he imports straight from Italy during the off season, he snatches them up from local markets as soon as they hit the stands, transforming them into bright and fresh marinara.

They'll also show up in salads for a lighter fare as the temperature rises, the patio opens and the scenic view from the windows overlooking the historic Ohio & Erie Canal appears in full bloom.

"Heirloom tomato, basil, sweet corn, red wine vinaigrette," he ticks off his list of a perfect summer mix.

That's not to say things won't heat up along with the weather; Leandri already is looking forward to a spicy seafood diablo and, for those salads, he'll be using "plenty of pepper," he adds with a grin.

By next summer, Leandri will transition into another new role as he begins overseeing the menu for a new LockKeepers operation in downtown Cleveland. Public Square Pizza, at 75 Public Square, on the ground floor of the former Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company building, will serve wood-oven fired pizzas, pasta and gelato in flavors from white chocolate strawberry and cherry to mascarpone. Leandri boasts plenty of experience with Neapolitan-style pies thanks to an eight-year stint at the esteemed Grissini in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

"The building is begging for this kind of space," says general manager Brian Woehrman. "We'll be building off all this new energy of downtown and Public Square."

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