I've never eaten in an executive dining room, those sumptuous corporate sanctuaries reserved for top-rung employees, but after a few meals at Il Venetian, I can now imagine what the experience must be like. Outside, passersby trudge anxiously to awaiting court dates at the Justice Center. But on this side of the wispy curtains, well-dressed capitalists dine in quiet comfort beneath elegant Italian-glass chandeliers. Across the street, frugal commuters hit up the mobile food cart for $2 chili dogs, but in here, we sit at cool Italian marble tables while carving into $50 veal chops.
Il Venetian is like a big, warm hug from a very rich uncle. Coming in from the cold, diners are immediately greeted by a dapper host, who graciously whisks away one's coat before guiding the party across spotless tile and cushy carpet to awaiting seats, which are aptly plush. Background music is pleasant and upbeat, but not so loud as to drown out the business of the day that emanates from most tables. Servers appear directly, filling water glasses, removing extra table settings and reciting the day's specials.
If fine dining is dead, you wouldn't know it by eating here. This expense account-ready eatery on the ground floor of Key Tower is part of the same hospitality group that includes Marble Room and LockKeepers. In addition to the lavish surroundings and excellent service, guests can look forward to technically proficient Italian fare that largely sticks to the playbook, albeit with a few twists and upgrades.
Airy fresh-baked focaccia lands on the table alongside an herby olive oil dip. Both will be gone long before the wine arrives from its glassy chamber in the dining room. Italian wines from prime wine-growing regions across that country command more than half the impressive list, supplemented by choice selections from California, France and Spain.
We progressed from subtle to sublime with a pair of compelling starters. An order of beef carpaccio ($18) reminds one why this dish is still around, thanks to melt-in-your-mouth leaves of wagyu offset by slivers of fried garlic and punchy capers. Beads of aioli enrich the experience. We've entered peak-octopus in Cleveland, and the version offered here ($18) is perfectly textured: poached until tender, grilled until crisp-edged and smoky. There's genuine heat, too, supplied by wheels of fiery chiles. All of the above is seated in a creamy puree of celery root-spiked potatoes.
At prices such as these a diner might expect the kitchen to separately plate a split Caesar salad ($12) — and that's precisely what they do. The cooks also do all the chopping, dressing and tossing, making this bright, lively salad an effortless mid-meal delight.
At prices such as these a diner might expect the kitchen to make by hand most of the pastas — and that's precisely what they do. The chef manages to distill the flavor of an entire lobster into each delicate cappelletti ($29), essentially tortellini. The fresh pasta pouches are just firm enough to keep the contents from crawling back to the sea. A lemony sauce laces through it all. Diners would be hard-pressed to find a lighter gnocchi ($20), which appear to be held together by little more than prayer. The pudding-soft orbs are bathed in a truffle-scented sauce so indulgently cheesy that it could pass as fondue lite.
If you embarrass easily, consider sidestepping the veal chop Parmesan ($48). Il Venetian's dinner plates are the size of frisbees, but still the bone-in beast could not be contained. Apart from its dimensions (and price), however, there is little to distinguish this pounded, breaded, pan-fried and cheese-broiled version from more modest versions. In fact, we found it under-seasoned and a bit bland. The meat shingle comes perched atop a tangle of spaghetti pomodoro, which, by the way, is the only pasta available by the half order.
At lunch, diners are treated to the same buoyant service and competent preparations, but you'll save a couple bucks. Hot cherry peppers enliven a textbook calamari ($14) that is light, crisp and ample enough for an extended family. Nice touches such as warm marinara and cool aioli dipping sauces show that little here is overlooked. The lunch menu features most of the pastas, as well as trimmer versions of the mains, but also a burger and excellent meatball panini ($15). That last option transforms a typically unwieldy construction into tidy stacks starring split balls, sauce and cheese.
Given the progress and development that we've experienced over the past handful of years downtown, it was only a matter of time until we began seeing an influx of upper echelon restaurants. Il Venetian fills that niche capably and tastefully.