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What Could Have Been: Joey's Bistro in Cleveland Heights Rests on Reputation

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The last thing Lee Road in Cleveland Heights needed was another restaurant. Within a short one-mile stretch, diners already have their pick from dozens of menus offering everything from lobster enchiladas to Turkish gyros. But that didn't deter Joey's Bistro from setting up shop in the old Jimmy O'Neill's Tavern spot after getting booted from the Chagrin Falls space it called home for some 30 years.

But then we walked in and saw what the Leonetti family had done to the space. They took an odd, dark and chopped-up room and turned it into a quaint, airy bistro. The bar now wraps around to both sides of the restaurant, uniting the two formerly gloomy spaces. That dusty loft over the dining room was 86'd, raising the ceilings and elevating the mood. A glass garage-door façade – a first for the street – will create a breezy indoor-outdoor feel come warmer weather.

A quick scan of the menu revealed that the restaurant actually managed to plug a gap on the street by providing the kind of familiar, filling and affordable Italian American fare entire families can get behind. And the response from the neighborhood appears to be encouraging, with diners filling up tables most nights since the late fall opening.

"What a great addition to the street," I said to the wife as we sat down for what was the first of two dinner visits.

But by the time we left after our second meal, all I could muster was, "Joey's could have been a great addition to the street."

From the flimsy silver to the poorly timed service to the unremarkable food, Joey's Bistro feels like a restaurant that's phoning it in – skating on a reputation that's three decades in the making but likely two decades undeserved. If I never again see a puddle of canned tomato product, it will be entirely too soon. That chunky marinara arrives alongside the fried mozzarella, under the stuffed hot peppers, atop the chicken Parmesan, beneath the calamari, on top of the pasta... you name it, it's red.

During our first visit, the appetizers barely hit the table when the soup and salad arrived. On the next visit, one appetizer showed up a full 10 minutes before the second. Getting water – including a refill of hot water for tea – proved more difficult here than in some developing countries. Longtime Joey's fans will likely recall with fondness those gooey, buttery, garlic knots that have long been a table staple in Chagrin Falls. But apparently one needs to be a longtime fan to actually score a basket in Cleveland Heights as they are doled out only to a select few.

The calamari ($9) – which we ordered only because the kitchen was out of mussels – is decent, the usual mix of fried squid rings, tentacles and banana peppers. We enjoyed, too, three sausage-stuffed hot peppers ($8), topped with cheese and planted in red sauce, but lazy prepping left distasteful clumps of seeds and membranes behind. Hefty logs of fried mozzarella ($6) are appropriately crunchy outside and gooey within, paired with more of the same chunky marinara. The inaptly named Caesar salad ($7) contains no croutons, anchovies or even Caesar dressing – all the things that make a Caesar a Caesar. At Joey's, diners can build their own pastas by mixing and matching noodles, sauces and meats. Avoid the meatballs, a $3.50 add-on that contains so much breading they appear white and smooth when bisected. The texture is predictably gummy, leaden and dry. Rather than a rich, smooth, meaty ragu, the Bolognese sauce ($10) is simply tomato sauce with a few bits of meat tossed in for good measure.

All is not lost, however, as a handful of entrees proved reason for optimism.

Joey's has always offered a good, garlicky and cheesy white pizza ($8) – here called agli olio – and it lives up to the original. And at $14, the lasagna also is a wise choice, with layers of soft pasta arranged with meat and cheese. Both the chicken Parmesan ($12) and the chicken piccata ($14) are reliable renditions of the Italian American chestnuts, but the former would have benefited immensely from some seasoning in the breading. Both come with a side of pasta topped with, you guessed it, chunky marinara.

Joey's likely will appeal to those with kids looking for a super-casual spot to grab a beer, a couple of pizzas, maybe a plate of pasta. But spend too much time contemplating the quality of the food and you might leave disappointed.

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