If diners can't get behind a place like Abo's Grill, I said to my wife during a recent visit, what hope do other indie restaurants have in today's chain-heavy landscape? This two-year-old sleeper of a place in Lyndhurst does all right, don't get me wrong, but considering the facts, it doesn't generate the sort of traffic that a solid neighborhood joint should. In the kitchen of this Italian restaurant is a CIA-trained chef turning out from-scratch dishes at prices that match bland, impersonal national chains like Carrabba's.
"I know, we are way underpriced for the kind of food we're putting out," chef Matt Mize agrees during a follow-up call.
If the chef's name sounds familiar, that's because Mize owned the buzzy Mizestro bistro in Brecksville, where he tickled guests with molecular gastronomy tricks like levitating food with an electromagnet, whipping up tableside sorbet in cryogenic bowls, and pouring glow-in-the-dark cocktails. "We're not fine dining," the chef liked to say, "we're fun dining." Well, the fun didn't last much longer than a year and a half before Mize made the decision to cut his losses.
Mize joined Abo's about a year after it opened, and he acknowledges that he inherited an already well-run operation. Owner Sam Abounader comes from restaurant-rich stock, with uncles and cousins running such classic establishments as Karl's Inn of the Barristers and the late Sammy's Grille, to name a few. Since Day 1, the operation has been making pasta and gnocchi from scratch, preparing the pizza dough in house, and breading provolone by hand for the fried cheese.
Of course, given his culinary predilections, Mize has been working to step up the quality and consistency of each dish while introducing intermittent sparks of his trademark creativity.
"I didn't change the whole philosophy; I don't want to give people culture shock," he says. "I just added a few fun things here and there from the restaurant."
Fans of the old restaurant will recognize one such carryover, the 96-hour sous vide-braised beef short rib with banana polenta. Other recent chef specials include crab cakes atop fennel whipped potatoes garnished with lemon "air" and handmade tortellini filled with duck and brie in a lobster-butternut sauce.
On more familiar ground, the golden brown and perfectly spherical arancini ($8) are filled with a creamy risotto-like mixture enriched with cheese. Three large orbs rest in a pool of smooth, flavorful marinara and are garnished with shavings of Parm. Other starters include that homemade fried provolone ($7) and an item called "pizza fries" ($6) that tops a nest of crispy eggplant fries with cheese and pepperoni. There's marinara on the side for dipping.
Unless you're a goat, you'll likely find the kale salad ($8) too fibrous to enjoy as it currently exists. The large and mature leaves either need to be sliced thinner, dressed earlier or replaced by a younger, more tender variety. Other salads on offer include a classic Caesar with rosemary croutons, and a wedge topped with bacon, egg and blue cheese.
A lengthy lunchtime sandwich menu is trimmed for dinner, but there are still a few gems like the meatball grinder ($9). Three plump and bouncy meatballs, made with a blend of pork, veal and beef, are stashed in a toasted bun, topped with cheese and broiled, and garnished with fresh parsley. The sandwich is sided by marinara for dousing or dipping and a mountain of dark and crunchy housemade potato chips.
Abo's pizzas are of the type that often get labeled as Cleveland-style, for want of a better term. The crust is buttery, chewy and floppy; there's heaps of sauce and cheese; and there's a golden brown base underneath. Diners can build their own 12- or 16-incher from a list of toppings or select one of eight specialty pies ($13 small, $18 large). If you prefer your pizza parts to arrive rolled or stuffed, you can go the stromboli ($11) or calzone ($11) routes.
Fresh pasta makes a big difference in dishes like cavatelli, gnocchi and lasagna. The latter ($17) shucks convention thanks to a squat, wide stance as opposed to tall and trim. The result is more surface area for the best part: blistered cheese. Nubby cavatelli ($15) in sauce has a toothsome texture and is topped with two hefty meatballs. In the entree department, eggplant, chicken and veal all get the "Parmesan" treatment, joined by steak and salmon options. We didn't think chicken piccata ($16) could ever be too lemony, but the one served here comes close. It's partnered with sauteed kale and roasted potatoes.
When the owner scored one of the few vacant lots in town and built Abo's from the ground up, he did so with the intent of creating a restaurant that catered to late-night dining. The result is a dining room that looks and feels more like a saloon owing to a massive three-sided bar that dominates the room. On the plus side, he also constructed a separate entrance dedicated to take-out orders that makes the pick-up process extremely efficient.