Like that one guy on Yelp, I really wanted to like Palazzo. I have been captivated by the curious, but vacant, building throughout my entire tenure as a restaurant critic. Vacillating between dilapidated eyesore and Lilliputian castle, depending on the light, the fieldstone-clad restaurant held so much history, intrigue and promise that all one could do is hope that some intrepid chef would rescue it before it was too late.
The last restaurant to occupy the structure closed in 2002, the very year that I began covering food in Cleveland. But that didn't prevent me from digging into its past. Oddly enough, the building used to reside on the opposite side of the road, until the land beneath its foundation was appropriated for a new rapid transit station. On both sides of the street, proprietress Palmina DiFilippo lured hungry diners with her fresh-baked breads, steamy cups of minestrone and mile-high lasagne al forno, all lovingly made from scratch in the back of the house.
Palmina's, as the popular red-sauce joint was called, rolled merrily along until about 1993, when the grandchildren of the original owner took possession, reworked the interior and unveiled Palazzo, a ritzy Italian restaurant. Through ups and downs, sisters Carla and Gilda graciously operated the "palace" for about a decade, leaving behind many of the restaurant's iconic fixtures for the next caretaker of the quirky spot.
That white knight would not materialize for another 17 years, when Rafael Zaloshnja purchased the building, thus sparing it from the wrecking ball. The Albanian-born chef had long been an admirer of the structure and dreamt about opening a restaurant of his own in that very spot. That's precisely what occurred in late May when Palazzo, an upscale Italian eatery, opened its doors.
While I am absolutely thrilled to see the building full of life, I am less enthusiastic about the spotty service, uneven food and laundry list of faux pas that we experienced over the course of two meals and a boatload of cash.
Our first contact with an employee, apart from the host, took place literally seconds after taking our seats, when a server ran up to the table just long enough to announce that the special of the day was some type of fish. She was gone in a flash, without so much as a greeting, a drink order or an offer of bread. Throughout the entire meal, she dashed about the dining room as though her hair was aflame, pausing just long enough to drop off a dish, before racing away to what I can only imagine was a life-or-death emergency out of our line of sight.
We ordered a nice bottle of Barolo ($60) and it arrived very warm to the touch, as if stored near a pizza oven or on the surface of the sun. That bread never did arrive, so we flagged down a busser, who promised to see to it. When it finally appeared, well into the meal, it did so in the form of a large, unsliced loaf, requiring a return visit to the kitchen for some attention.
High notes include an appetizer of crispy cheese-stuffed artichoke hearts ($14) in a truffle-scented cream sauce, hot and tasty wedding soup ($7), a Margherita pizza ($14) with an excellent crust, and a pair of pastas, neither of which are made in house. The bucatini Bolognese ($22) featured noodles from Flour Pasta Company and a straightforward meat sauce, while the lobster ravioli ($24) came straight from Ohio City Pasta and was gilded with large shrimp and a blush cream sauce. Freshly grated cheese had to be requested and half orders are not available.
Low notes include a bowl of steamed mussels ($11) with bivalves the size of a fingernail, a bowl of shrimp bisque ($9) that was essentially truffle oil-infused cream and a Caesar salad ($7) that did not resemble those of the diners all around me, given that it had waited somewhere warm until it wilted. Toss-ups range from a prosciutto-free veal saltimbocca ($28) with limp asparagus and undercooked potatoes to an impressive-looking grilled pork chop ($22) served atop a melange of tepid vegetables.
Those seated in the dining room have an unobstructed view of a salad and dessert station that is positioned on this side of the kitchen door. We watched as the staffer sliced open plastic-wrapped balls of commercial mozzarella, grabbed berries straight from plastic clamshells, and squeezed grocery store chocolate sauce from a plastic bottle. Nearby, a server cleared every last plate from a couple's table except for the woman's entree, while over there, a manager tugged on the jacket of a server in the midst of discussing specials just to say that a diner requested his check.
There's always room for another great Italian restaurant, especially in this neighborhood. Here's hoping that Palazzo will become that place.