Fried calamari? Check!
Margherita flatbread? Check!
Chicken Caesar salad? Check!
Pasta with vodka cream sauce? Check!
Diners who visit will not stumble upon Cleveland's most creative menu at Murano Modern Italian, where the riskiest maneuver by the chef is to grill the romaine in that Caesar. But if you haven't noticed, predictability is precisely what many people appear to crave these days — at least judging by the surfeit of nearly identical taco, pizza, burger and something-for-everybody joints.
For those in search of approachable, reasonably priced, well prepared — and, yes, predictable — Italian food, Murano more than capably fills the bill. The restaurant opened in mid-summer, on a quiet alley in the heart of downtown. While the concept is decidedly mainstream, the decision to open was anything but shortsighted.
"The space became available after K&D did a big renovation on the Leader Building," explains Wyatt Grace, a veteran Cleveland chef. "It was something we knew we could do and we felt there was a need for an everyday kind of Italian restaurant, not a special occasion place."
It's true that apart from low-end pizza and pasta joints and glitzy new destination venues, this particular neighborhood is underserved when it comes to uncomplicated but elegant Italian eateries. Porcelli's, which existed in this very space for years before relocating a block away, is one notable exception.
Following a building-wide construction project that ushered in 225 new residential units, Murano sports a sleek, minimal interior that looks out onto the urban canyon that is East Sixth Street. Downtown workers and business travelers, likely nudged by their hotel concierges, are beginning to add the restaurant to their lunchtime repertoires. Lured by the promise of warm bread, daily soups, fresh salads, hearty pastas, lusty sandwiches, and just enough entrees, those diners are finding themselves well taken care of.
That grilled Caesar ($10) might not be a revelation, but the elements that comprise it are top-notch. Fat shavings of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, plump white anchovies and golden-brown and crunchy (not stale) croutons garnish a split head of baby romaine that is, in fact, grilled, leaving it charred and warm, but still lively. A silver creamer on the side filled with creamy, garlicky dressing puts diners in control. Likewise, the porchetta sandwich ($10) is well crafted, with the thin-sliced meat set against chopped arugula, slicked with aioli, and hot-pressed between slices of airy focaccia. That price includes a cold pasta side salad or house salad.
Day or night, an appealing lineup of pastas is available by the whole or half. At lunch one day, the kitchen graciously split a split into separate portions for me and my companion. During dinner for four, we all just jumped into a half order of goat cheese ravioli ($12), with the pasta pillows sweetened by a splash of balsamic and garnish of (unripe) melon.
Vodka cream sauce fans have been ordering the gnocchi ($12 to $23) by the truckload, seduced by tender-chewy dumplings bathed in an appropriately rich, decadent gravy studded with a handful of sauteed shrimp. Sadly, the heat from the oven never fully penetrated the core of a large, deep casserole of cheesy baked ziti ($18).
Italian restaurant staples like arancini ($6), calamari ($10) and steamed mussels ($8) hit the spot in the right, customary ways. The crispy-fried rice balls have a pleasant chew to the grains, and the marinara pond in which they loll is bright and spicy. The calamari boasts few surprises but also zero missteps. If you've enjoyed broth-steamed mussels with grilled bread, you'll know what to expect at Murano. Flatbreads — gotta have 'em! — come in a handful of patterns, including the agreeable Margherita ($10), a proper crust topped with good-quality canned tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and summery basil.
At $32, the veal chop Milanese sits at the pinnacle of the price pyramid. That same dish is $15 higher at nearby places like Luca and Il Venetian. More affordable dishes like chicken piccata ($23) are equally satisfying, with truly succulent white meat encased in a willowy batter. A textbook sauce is bright, briny and barely thickened, with plump capers and lemon-yellow fruit wheels. On the plate also happen to sit some of the most addictive blanched, smashed and fried potatoes I've stumbled upon in ages.
There's no doubt that Murano had a slow start. Summer saw not only the seasonal exodus of many diners but the arrival of development that has neighboring sidewalks closed to pedestrians. But downtown residents have been responding positively to the bar's happy hour, when beers cost $3, glasses of wine $5, and well-made cocktails $6. A lounge menu offers some cheap bites to go with.
"Downtown is a real community now," chef Grace reports. "Having worked down here for nine years, I've watched it all change with the arrival of younger folks. It's a lot different now."