Montepulciano might be fun to drink, but it is absolute murder to pronounce. The six-syllable Italian tongue-twister can strike fear in all but the most sophisticated sommeliers, so it was completely forgivable when our server, while repeating our wine order, failed to stick the landing. But instead of turning into an awkward moment, it developed into a spontaneous sing-along, with the entire group crooning in unison, "maan-tuh-pul-chee-ah-noe," until the phrasing was impossible to forget.
The last time we had this much fun with a server was at EDWINS, which is no coincidence given the fact that Ohio City Pizzeria now operates under the watchful eye of Brandon Chrostowski, that organization's founder. Chrostowski was brought in by the West Side Catholic Center (WSCC), the new owner of the business, to help reshape the food, service and setting at this decades-old westside spot. Now functioning as a non-profit, Ohio City Pizzeria benefits the community by providing employment to WSCC clients while generating a new revenue stream for essentials like meals, shelter and clothing.
Step inside OCP 2.0 and you enter a diorama-like space that could double as a theatrical set for an off-Broadway play that takes place in an Italian-American restaurant. The highly embellished decor is cliched, corny and absolutely perfect, a heartwarming slice of Little Italy in Ohio City. The red-and-white checked tablecloths instantly signal to diners that this joint welcomes all backgrounds and budgets, an ethos at one with the restaurant's benefactors. Those tables are quickly graced with baskets of soft, fresh Italian bread and cruets of good olive oil. Pitchers of cold water are always at hand and silverware is replaced between most courses.
Ohio City Pizzeria was always adored for its pizza (if not its atmosphere) and those pies still fly out of the kitchen with the predictability of a metronome. Crisp-edged, golden-brown and suspended above the table on a stand, the pizzas sport a buttery crust sturdy enough to support toppings like the diced meatballs, mushrooms, green peppers and fresh basil that crown the Wildcat ($19/$24). Build your own or choose from a list of a half-dozen or so pre-designed pies.
An appetizer of stuffed banana peppers ($8) featured blistered peppers unzipped to reveal well-browned sausage set against a blaze of tomato sauce. Together, the flavors present themselves in waves of sweet, spicy and savory goodness. Bruschetta ($6) is topped with diced ripe tomatoes buoyed by hits of fresh lemon and herbs. A longer toast would have provided some welcome textural contrast. OCP first fries and then sautes its calamari ($12), a worst-of-both-worlds process that results in a soggy, saucy, heavy product.
We had nothing but high praise for the Caesar ($9), a refreshingly tart, tangy and garlicky salad, spared from the sort of over-the-top creamy dressings that sink so many. This one also benefits from fat shavings of quality Parmesan, dice-size croutons and plump Sicilian anchovies.
Chrostowski's acumen was relied upon to craft a menu that simultaneously satisfied neighborhood diners on a budget while still carving out space for a $32 steak to go with that Tuscan Montepulciano ($42). Old-school calzones can be had for as little as $6, bountiful pasta plates for $12, and meat-based entrees for a few bucks more. A multi-layered lasagna ($12) is like a warm hug, a comforting slice of noodles, meat sauce, tomatoes and cheese. The chicken Marsala ($15) is an umami bomb starring earthy mushrooms, sauteed chicken and a tangle of al dente fettucine. Other pasta-based dishes include bucatini Bolognese, cavatelli with meatballs and fettuccini Alfredo.
Seafood seekers have just two main selections from which to choose: linguine with clams in a white wine and butter sauce and branzino with lemon-butter sauce and roasted potatoes.
For dessert there's tiramisu, cannoli and a ricotta cheesecake ($7) gilded with Super Punch, a near-cultish cordial from Italy's Abruzzo region. That liqueur is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the broad and deep beverage program at Ohio City Pizzeria. From a small but cheerful bar at the back of the room flow feisty cocktails like negronis and manhattans, silken dessert pours such as Sauternes and Vov, an Italian eggnog, and delightful digestifs like imported limoncello made from the peels of sun-kissed lemons grown on the Amalfi Coast.
And then there's the 100-bottle wine list, which might seem like overkill for a 30-seat pizzeria on Lorain — but we certainly aren't complaining. There are labels hailing from the regions of Tuscany, Abruzzo, Piedmont, Sicily, Puglia, Umbria and Veneto — not to mention New World picks from the States — each hand-picked by Chrostowski, a certified sommelier. Glass pours and beers round out the selection.
I can't imagine a better recipe for success than good food and joyful service dished up in a convivial dining room with proceeds going to a great cause.