For a Michelin-starred chef, Dante Boccuzzi's professional homecoming was less than ideal. After five years at Charlie Palmer's Aureole, one of New York City's premier restaurants, the Parma native packed up his knives and returned to stake his claim in Northeast Ohio. Joining forces with Frank Sinito, Boccuzzi took creative control of Lockkeepers in Valley View, reopening it in March 2007 as Dante. Despite largely favorable reviews, the arrangement would last little more than a year and a half.
"That was never a good fit for me," says Boccuzzi. "The restaurant was too big and the overhead was too high, making it impossible to ever get ahead."
While it might have made sense when it opened, Dante most certainly did not make sense by the summer of 2008. The bubble had burst, expense accounts were drying up and diners were avoiding pricey restaurants like the plague. Sinito urged Boccuzzi to rework the concept and turn it into a casual Italian eatery along the lines of Bravo or Brio. He said, "No, thanks."
"Not that that's bad food," says Boccuzzi. "But it's not what I do."
Finally, three years after his return to Cleveland, Boccuzzi will open the "real" Dante. Located in the former Third Federal Bank building on Professor Avenue in Tremont, the restaurant is a better fit not only for the chef's approach to food, but also for today's market. Whereas Lockkeeper's size and layout prevented it from ever feeling hip and lively, Dante's main room will seat just 90, with many of those located in the lounge. Divided by little more than a chest-high wood-paneled wall, the bar and dining room are essentially one.
"The menu is very different from what we were doing at Lockkeepers," says the chef. "It's still my style of cooking, and there are some favorites being carried over. But we designed the menu with more choices." Gone are the $15 appetizers and $30 main courses, replaced by an approachable menu that tops out at $20.
Boccuzzi describes his style as modern American: "Modern in the sense that it is always changing and American in that it has influences from many cultures." The culture that seems to get the most play is Italian. Boccuzzi's first restaurant was adored more for its lush homemade pastas than almost anything else, and diners will be happy to learn that similar dishes will be offered here. Available as tastes, starters or entrées, handmade pastas can be added to any meal or designated as the main event. In a related twist, risotto and polenta will be available in numerous styles, the latter to be whipped up tableside on large wooden boards.
Other menu highlights include a "duo of crudo," a sampling of raw preparations of beef carpaccio and tuna tartar. House-cured charcuterie and fine artisanal cheeses will be housed in a cooler at the rear of an original bank vault. That vault, by the way, will earn praise as the second most prized seat in the house. Tucked behind a massive and visually stunning vault door, the nook will seat four very lucky diners.
Taking the prize for Best Seat in the House likely will be the chef's table. Seated in the kitchen, one fortunate four-top will be wined and dined personally by Boccuzzi while being immersed in the frenetic environment of a professional restaurant kitchen. There, diners will select from tasting menus that run seven, 14 and a whopping 21 courses long. Don't worry about the view; this kitchen is decked out with tile, stainless steel and original artwork.
"This is my dream kitchen without having to spend millions of dollars," says the chef. "I've considered all the problems of my previous kitchens and hopefully eliminated them."
Originally slated to open last spring, Dante benefits from some imposed perspective. While construction snags may have delayed the grand opening, they have also allowed for some market-based modifications. In place of the planned sommelier and 100-point wine program, for example, Dante will offer 50 wines under $50, each available by the glass, half bottle and bottle.
Also amended was the launch of a lower-level sushi bar called Gingko. Originally scheduled to open on or around the unveiling of Dante, this project will be pushed back until spring. Located beneath the main restaurant, and accessible both from the street and its upstairs neighbor, Gingko will be a modern Japanese eatery that seats approximately 50.
Dante diners won't have to wait nearly as long to enjoy a year-round glass-walled gazebo with fireplace, which is located adjacent to a future patio. Look for an early December opening.