Coming from a restaurant like Two Urban Licks in Atlanta, Michael Serdula had plenty of ideas on how to run a commercial kitchen. That boisterous and beloved big city restaurant is praised for its progressive farm-to-table approach, and Serdula had every intention of establishing a similar program at his new gig up north as opening chef of Pastina.
But his bosses had some of ideas of their own. Since 1969, the Longos have been supplying the entirety of Lake County with its pizza, pasta and chicken parm fix. Restaurants like Longo's Pizza and Joey's Italian Grille are not only enduring fixtures in the communities in which they reside, they are standard bearers for Italian-American cuisine. Last year, that dining dynasty added the upscale Pastina to its portfolio of eateries.
It's familiar territory that Serdula and his kitchen colleagues find themselves in, navigating the waters between what they believe is right and what the owners think the customers want. What comes out the other end, at least in this instance, is a sort of hybrid restaurant that aims to marry two very different schools of thought, sometimes to great effect and others not.
Take the chicken parmigiana... please, says Serdula.
"If you live in Alabama, people tell you there's a church on every corner of the street," he says. "You come up here and there's a chicken parm joint on every corner of the street."
The chef might be powerless to pull that Italian-American chestnut from the menu, but that doesn't mean the dish won't be the best damn chicken parm the kitchen can assemble. Made with fresh Ohio chicken breast, house-made linguini and lively marinara, the hearty entrée is as satisfyingly delicious as a diner could hope. But at $17, the dish is $5 more than even Longo sells it down the street.
“I think, as with anything, there’s a learning curve, with us, with them and with Lake County,” the chef says, referring to the kitchen, management and the general public. “We really want to bring in this feeling of the farm-to-table thing, but people out here are a little set in their ways.”
While Pastina does less than some in that regard, it still does more than most. The restaurant works with a handful of local farms to supply all of its chicken, beef, pork and much of its produce. What they don't bring in they make themselves. All of the pastas, bread and pizza doughs and even some cheeses are made in-house, as is the zesty pork sausage, which is lightly packed into flavorful cubanelle peppers ($9) and topped with a three-cheese blend.
Milky homemade mozzarella oozes out of the center of a textbook arancini ($8) appetizer. Each of the three large orbs is dark and crispy on the exterior, concealing a creamy risotto-like filling with a molten cheese core. They're all nestled into a pool of warm marinara and garnished with fresh herbs.
That homemade pizza dough ferments slowly over the course of three days, a process that improves its flavor and texture immeasurably. Nearly a dozen combinations are available, or guests can build their own atop a base of marinara and provolone. Our pie ($15), a crispy, chewy, lightly charred crust topped with sausage, fresh mozz and sauce, puts most deck-oven versions to shame.
Pastina goes seasonal in a house-made ravioli ($17) filled with a springy sweet pea mixture. Unfortunately, the kitchen didn't know when to say "when" with respect to garnishes, which approached 10 in number and included asparagus, sun-dried tomato, beets, red and yellow bell peppers, pistachios and pesto. The kitchen turns out pasta dishes made with fresh ricotta cavatelli, fresh linguini and fresh fettuccine, the last of which is sauced with a robust Bolognese ($19) fortified with slow-simmered local beef and pork.
In terms of atmosphere, Pastina is the opposite of a cozy farm-to-table Italian bistro. From the outside, the restaurant looks like any other suburban strip mall watering hole. But inside, the place is massive, bright and excessively beige, capable of seating 350 guests at a go. In stark contrast to the kitchen's progressive ways, the service comes across as dated. Entrees come with side salads – cheese is a buck extra! – sauces and dressings arrive in plastic ramekins, wine is served in chunky stemware, and the tables are set with those disposable McCormick salt and pepper grinders. Silverware is not replaced between courses, the guest is responsible for packing up his or her own leftovers, and servers can do a better job touting the local-foods angle.
But Serdula is thrilled that things are moving in the right direction, with increased autonomy and culinary freedom coming by the day.
"It's been great to see the maturation from how it was in the beginning to how it is now and what we can do and what we can't do," he says. "I feel like there's still a lot of room to grow."
Pastina9354 Mentor Ave., Mentor 440-255-3117