By all appearances, Giovanna Mingroni was living a chef's dream. In the mid-1990s, she snagged a coveted entry-level role at the celebrated Zuni Café in San Francisco. Five short years later, she had scratched her way up the ladder to the No. 2 spot, right behind chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers. Meanwhile, over in Oakland, Mingroni's then-husband, Mark Daverio, was working alongside another giant of California cuisine, Paul Bertolli of Oliveto.
When it came time to open their first restaurant, the duo embarked on a six-month research tour of Italy, where they ate and drank everything they could get their hands on. Then they settled in Cleveland, not far from Daverio's native Akron.
"We definitely took the fast track," Mingroni says today. "We had similar philosophies about food and a strong image of what kind of restaurant we wanted to have. Though we were a little nervous that it would not take off in Cleveland."
But take off it did. Opened in 2000, Battuto Ristorante brought fresh, seasonal Italian cuisine to Little Italy, a neighborhood in desperate need of a culinary upgrade at the time. Soon, Battuto was garnering glowing critical reviews and topping reader-poll rankings. More important, the restaurant had cultivated a fervently loyal fan base that filled the house for seven delicious years.
And then it all went south — fast.
"Our regulars who used to come in once a week started to come in once a month," explains Mingroni. The onset of the Great Recession hurt most restaurateurs, but especially those who relied heavily on pricey fine and imported ingredients. Rather than drastically change their restaurant — which would have meant changing who they were, and what they believed in as chefs — the couple made the ultimate choice.
"We decided that we couldn't serve the kind of food we were preparing to the kind of clientele we were serving and make it more affordable," says Mingroni. And so Battuto closed its doors.
"We were miserable," she adds. "We're still sad."
Mingroni and Daverio's plight is no different from that of countless other chef-owners across Northeast Ohio and across the country. A withering economy colliding with an eternally challenging industry created a hurricane of heartbreak. But while numerous chefs packed up their knives, funny white hats in hand, and headed off to the next available opening, just as many packed it in for good. Things have changed, say some chefs, making it nearly impossible to succeed as a solo flyer.
Restaurants like Battuto are a relic of another era, says Mingroni. Neighborhood bôites with small menus, costly tabs, and no bar business are being rubbed out by outsized eateries with more seats, lower prices, and boisterous bars.
And then there's the consolidation of power. "Fewer people are doing more. Now, there are chefs running two, three, and four restaurants," says Mingroni. "And we struggled with one!"
One chef-owner who isn't rushing back to the range is Parker Bosley, who for 14 years ran the groundbreaking Ohio City bistro Parker's. Growing up on a family farm, Bosley naturally gravitated toward using the farm-fresh foods of his youth in his commercial kitchen. Up till then, if a restaurant's food wasn't airlifted from a snooty French market on the Champs Elysées, it wasn't worth swallowing. Bosley's insistence on local, seasonal, and sustainable products — even when it was maddeningly inconvenient to do so — unintentionally birthed the farm-to-table movement in Cleveland and beyond.
After decades devoted to cooking and teaching, Bosley was done, ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. In early 2007, he sold the business and building, and went back to what he knows and loves: Ohio farming. These days, at the mature age of 72, Bosley battles urban sprawl by helping small farmers become economically sustainable by distributing their goods to a wider audience. He bristles at the idea of ever again toiling in a professional kitchen. "Incredibly hard work" he calls it, and why would he want that again?