- Photo by Walter Novak
- Mangiamo's leafy courtyard makes dishes like the vegetarian pizza even more pleasant.
Sissies who dwell in warmer climes don't know how good they have it. For those hothouse flowers, any time is a fine time to head outdoors. But do they appreciate it? Not likely.
On the other hand, take your average northeast Ohioan: In a good year, about 80 percent of our time is spent dodging Ma Nature. The result is a region rife with pale, squinty-eyed sorts, who cherish the occasional soft and sunny evening as the precious gift it is.
Unfortunately, the vitamin D deprivation sometimes goes to our heads. Consider: We don shorts in February and say we're tanning. We bob amongst the effluvia of Lake Erie and claim it's swimming. We grab a rickety chair and table on a dusty patch of sidewalk and call it alfresco dining.
But while we can't offer much advice on Clevelanders' sartorial or recreational problems, we can say this about outdoor dining: It doesn't have to be that way. There are plenty of breezy hideaways sprouting beyond the walls of the region's restaurants. You just have to know where to look.
In the Twin Lakes' area of Portage County -- an easy drive from Hudson, Kent, Streetsboro, and Aurora -- we recommend Mangiamo!, a casual Italian ristorante with a charming outdoor courtyard. Nestled beneath the sheltering boughs of maples and pines, enclosed by a tall wooden fence, and landscaped with roses, holly, and graceful ferns, the brick patio provides an airy yet secluded retreat. Combine that with a tempting roundup of craft-brewed beers, a small but interesting wine list, and a relatively ambitious kitchen that scores many more hits than misses, and you have all the makings of a memorable summer evening.
While not everything coming from the kitchen is flawless -- an entrée of pan-roasted salmon, for instance, was well-done on one side, but practically raw on the other, and the menu's "somewhat traditional wedding soup" was somewhat dull -- most of the dishes are ample, flavorful, and reasonably priced. Entrées generally check in under $20, and the generously sized gourmet pizzas top out at $13.95.
Bountiful bowls of well-appointed greenery, Mangiamo's salads also prompted oohs and ahhs around the table. Three of us feasted on the panzanella version, a sweet-and-smoky toss of balsamic-marinated roma tomatoes, kalamata olives, fresh basil, and hot-off-the-grill morsels of focaccia. Like an "assemble-it-yourself" pizza, the flavors came together with a snap and a pop. And the savory-sweet juices that gathered in the bottom of the bowl offered a perfect sop for the slabs of rosemary-scented focaccia that filled our breadbasket. (A zesty Romano-piqued dipping oil was just a bonus.)
True, the makings for an antipasto salad -- shredded romaine and mozzarella, chilled penne, marinated artichoke hearts, and sliced salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, and spicy capicola -- were fairly standard stuff, but a nudge of peppery flavor notes from the oregano vinaigrette made this salad sizzle too.
Follow either of these with one of Mangiamo's pizzas -- available either as a traditional hearth-baked pie or as a chargrilled flatbread -- and you have a simple, rustic dinner for two. Among the 10 topping combos, we debated the merits of roasted chicken with pesto and charred tomato; Italian sausage with roasted red pepper and onions; and the Mediterranean Garden, with kalamata olives, artichokes, organic arugula, fresh mint, roasted-garlic oil, and crumbled feta.
Finally, though, we settled on the forest mushroom, ordered as a chargrilled flatbread. As it turned out, the 'shrooms -- what few of them there were -- must have been traveling incognito: The predominant flavor notes were provided by chèvre, roasted garlic, and roasted red pepper, not the fancied fungi. But while the pie wasn't quite what we expected, it wasn't without merit -- thanks to its smoky, tender, and pleasantly chewy crust. In fact, it was downright delish -- especially paired with a chilled bottle of sparkling Dom de Bertiol Prosecco ($25) or a frosty, $4 pour of Magic Hat #9, a pale-ale type brew, rife with malt, vanilla, and tropical accents, from Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing Company.
Speaking of deliciousness -- that leads us to the lobster penne, an indulgent toss of al dente pasta, charred tomato, and sizable bits of sweet crustacean, wrapped up in a rich but not cloying Alfredo sauce. Also memorable: the moist, meaty lasagna Tribuzzo (from one of the owners' family recipes) and the veal Romano -- two ample filets of thinly pounded veal, coated in Italian bread crumbs and pan-fried to crisp-edged luxe. Settled on a bed of still-firm fettuccini and lightly stroked with a not-too-sweet Marsala sauce, it was a well-executed take on a classic -- and well worth savoring.
Meantime, lengthening shadows dappled the courtyard; robins launched into their evening serenades; and the friendly but inattentive servers floated by like dust motes, riding a gentle breeze to who-knows-where -- without the water refills we requested.
Fortunately, the possibility of sweet endings like tiramisu, freshly stuffed cannoli, and the homemade gelato of the day helped quell our pain. Ultimately, we zeroed in on the zabaione, a lush, liquid custard of sugar, egg yolks, and Marsala, served in a stemmed cocktail glass. A few additional cubes of pound cake and an extra heaping of berries would have made it seem more like eating an actual dessert -- and less like spooning up cream -- but we appreciated the overall effect. We might be vitamin D-deprived, but we still know yum when we taste it.