I'm a bit of a car guy, so I was thrilled to watch — and listen — as some of the sweetest rides known to man thrummed on by. There was a cherry-red Ferrari F430 Spyder convertible, steel-blue Porsche 911 Carrera, and coal-black Maserati Quattropporte. You might assume that I was at some swanky motoring show, but I was merely trying to enjoy dinner at M Italian, the latest see-and-be-seen spot in Chagrin Falls.
More attention seemed to be focused on the valet station, which runs the length of the front patio like the red carpet from a Hollywood awards show, than on the meals directly in front of people's noses. That's fitting because the restaurant itself seems to place more importance on aesthetics than it does on food.
Over the course of two meals I found myself thinking: For a restaurant this attractive and crowds this thick, one would expect food with a little more personality. The locals have a nickname for the place — M'Olive Garden — but that doesn't stop them from beating down the door to claim a table, even if it's at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, at which point the hostess suggests one take a seat at the bar to ride out the 40-minute wait.
The indoor-outdoor bar does make a great vantage point from which to take in the scene. Seated inside, barflies can follow the red carpet action taking place out front. Seated outside, guests have great views of the highly stylized dining room, which looks like an Anthropologie store with waiters in place of sales attendants. The distressed, monochromatic views are broken up by an open kitchen, roaring pizza oven and imposing blown-glass chandeliers likely brought in from the highly visible glass-blowing studio in an adjacent space.
Owner Bret Adams has made a living selling common food in uncommon spaces. His ever-expanding Burntwood Tavern family of eateries is known more for its rustic and relaxed setting than cutting-edge cuisine, and M appears to follow the same tack. Here, Italian-American staples like pizza, pasta and grilled meats populate a menu with few surprises. Order right and you can walk away with a decent meal. Choose wrong and you're left scratching your head in bemusement.
Meals begin with warm, doughy bread served alongside a dish of seasoned olive oil. On one visit that bread was buoyant and poufy as a Bundt cake. On another it was flat as a johnnycake. Our bowl of Grandma Rosie's wedding soup ($6) was thin, tepid and so sparsely populated by ingredients that it might have passed as consommé. We counted two fava bean-sized meatballs and a complete absence of chicken.
We had much better luck with a plate of prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, but at three for $14 they aren't much of a bargain. The medium-size shrimp are crispy, salty and only a tad dry from the roast. They are perched atop a lovely white bean salad with greens, tomatoes, cheese and crostini. A few seconds longer in the deep fryer would have done wonders for our vegetable frites ($9), a pile of pale but well-seasoned veggies accompanied by two types of dip.
Pizzas, cooked in the wood-burning oven, arrive appropriately dark, crusty and undeniably tasty. All are priced at $14 and are topped with combos like sausage and spicy peppers, chicken pesto and artichokes, or four cheese. Consider ordering a few as appetizers for the table as soon as you sit down to speed things along.
Pastas at M seem to be hit or miss. A large and lovely meatball — flavorful and the opposite of dense — sits proudly in a bowl of chewy cavatelli ($16), melty mozzarella blobs and bright marinara. Undercooked penne sinks a second pasta ($17) that consists of little more than torn basil, crushed tomatoes and a few bland shrimp.
A thick-cut, bone-in pork chop ($19) is gilded by a fat cap of broiled gorgonzola cheese, making it exceedingly rich but also savory and satisfying. It, like all of the entrees, is paired with the same starch and veggie combo: sautéed broccolini and roasted fingerling potatoes. In addition to the chop, M offers salmon, steak and chicken.
We took the hostess up on her offer of bar seats one night just as happy hour was winding down. The bartenders could barely keep up, rushing to and fro like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. We counted three broken glasses in the first hour. Those that didn't break were filthy, but we drank wine out of them anyway to calm our nerves because the dining room gives the falls a run for its money in the noise department.
And this was with the garage door façade flung wide open. Come fall, things are bound to get much, much worse.