Out of the corner of my eye I spied one of the city's top chefs walk into the restaurant and grab a seat at the bar. She was joined by a former restaurant-industry magazine editor. Across the dining room, in a dimly lit corner, a Cleveland city council member was enjoying a quiet meal with a friend. All around the room, in fact, small clutches of people were engrossed in conversation, laughter and intimacy in the easygoing sort of way that comes only from being at peace with one's surroundings.
It's one thing to say that you intend to build a neighborhood restaurant, but ultimately that decision really isn't up to the owner, is it? It's the neighbors themselves who decide which places will earn their business, their loyalty, their cash. And since opening its doors in December, Il Rione has been on the receiving end of all of the above and more.
Owners Brian Moss and Brian Holleran felt so strongly about the concept of civic kinship that they named the restaurant around it. In Italian, "rione" roughly translates to neighborhood in the same way that "barrio" does in Spanish, a connotation that extends well past impersonal geographical borders. It was Holleran and Moss who explained to me that this unique patch of Cleveland — north of Detroit between West 65th and 69th streets — had once been a thriving west-side version of Little Italy, and they intended to do everything they could to revive that spirit.
"By attempting to preserve the old building and keeping it as original as possible, we want to help turn this neighborhood back to what it was 75 years ago, when you had all these old retail spaces," Moss says. "People are building places like Crocker Park to emulate neighborhoods like this."
It's safe to say that there are no other pizza joints in town quite like Il Rione. The warm lighting, stylishly weathered interior and upbeat soundtrack spinning out tracks from Velvet Underground, Wu-Tang Clan and James Brown combine to create more of a pizza lounge than pizza shop. It's precisely the sort of restaurant that you would enjoy visiting regardless of the food, those Yogi Berra-like places that nobody goes to anymore because they're too crowded.
But here's the kicker: The pizza is phenomenal. For the sake of brevity we'll call it New York/New Jersey style: a wide pie with a thin, foldable crust. While that crust lacks the photogenic qualities of a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, what with all those singed carbuncles and canyons, it is no less delicious. The cornicione — or lip — is pale to tan, but crisp, fluffy and tasty enough to eat on its own. The undercarriage is thin but rigid enough to support the toppings when folded or not.
Il Rhione's clam pie ($18/14-inch, $23/18-inch) is a thing of briny beauty. It's a white pizza (no red sauce) dotted with sweet chopped clams, salty pecorino cheese, heaps of garlic and more than enough parsley to plug the gaps between one's teeth. The Margherita ($13, $17) is as satisfying as it is straightforward: a great crust slicked with bright tomato sauce, puddles of melted fresh mozzarella, and a smattering of basil leaves.
Diners can select from a half-dozen predesigned pies like that clam, or a savory anchovy pizza with cheese, fried capers, olives and the aforementioned swimmers. Diners can also build their own from the crust up, first choosing between red with cheese, white with cheese, or red no cheese and then selecting from a succinct list of a dozen toppers.
Il Rione's menu is uncomplicated, with very few moving parts. The aim is to perfect the pies and service before adding on items such as pastas. But given the size of the kitchen, there's not much room for menu expansion. There is exactly one appetizer, a meat and cheese plate ($14) populated with sliced Italian meats like prosciutto, salami and bresaola, and cheeses such as milky primo sale, creamy fontal and lush gorgonzola dolce.
Three salads are on offer, each worth ordering. We loved the corny polenta croutons in the arugula ($9), a toss of crisp chopped romaine, arugula and cheese shavings in a honey-kissed vinaigrette. Firm, sweet chunks of roasted winter squash and crunchy pistachios livened up the radicchio ($9), as did piquant nubs of gorgonzola.
As with the food menu, the beverage menu is short but more than serviceable, with just enough good-quality whites, reds, roses and bubbles — both glass and bottle — to see you through the meal. Same goes for beer and cocktails.
Il Rione does not take reservations and it gets busy most nights, especially Thursday through Saturday, when it's not uncommon to experience waits — or worse, a kitchen that has run out of dough. In the case of the former, grab a seat (or stand) at the bar or walk across the street to Stone Mad for a round or two until that precious text comes through. This place is worth the wait.