Every neighborhood deserves a great pizza joint, even those neighborhoods that seemingly popped up over a long weekend. When it was built a few years ago, Battery Park was the largest housing development in the entire city of Cleveland. The $100-million community takes its name from the old Eveready Battery plant that called this patch of dirt home for years. Thanks to that industrial lineage, residents who pay $300,000 for a townhouse are strongly advised against ever planting anything edible in the soil.
CHA Spirits & Pizza Kitchen, which took up residence in the old Battery Park Wine Bar space, might never rise to the level of destination restaurant. But it certainly knows how to make nice with neighbors. Owner Susan Walters, who some might remember as the Ohio City pioneer behind KeKa, never wanted anything more than that for her Detroit Shoreway restaurant.
"A really casual, neighborhood place that you can go to a couple times a week," is how Walters described the place before opening day.
Walters inherited a very cool space — the original powerhouse building for the factory complex — and managed to improve it a lot by doing very little. The front bar is still there, but now in place of bottles of booze, a beefy Blodgett pizza oven emits warm, yeasty breezes. A new bar was built in the rear of the space, which both improves the view for barflies and better utilizes that portion of the restaurant. Seated at the bar, it looks as though those lamp-eyed freight trains are heading straight for your head.
As the name implies, the best part of CHA is the pizza (and spirits). Chef Michael Marich takes his dough seriously, going so far as to name his mother dough and treat her like kin. A happy accident one day landed one of his baby-soft dough balls in a puddle of panko bread crumbs. The result is a nubby, crunchy bottom that makes cornmeal seem silky by comparison. The super-thin crusts crackle, bubble and char in all the right places, and the pies — at least those minimally topped like the Margarita ($13) — are greedily devoured off their elevated perches. But order a loaded specialty pizza such as the Spanish ($13), with sausage, peas, oven-roasted tomatoes and cheese, and that great crust begins to lose the battle. Diners can choose from eight predesigned pies or build their own from a listing of dozens of toppings.
The rest of CHA's menu is an odd mix of items big and small, meaty and vegetarian, savory and sweet. We got a kick out of the Backward Artichoke Dip ($8), which pairs crispy deep-fried artichoke hearts with a crock of bubbly spinach and cheese fondue. Close your eyes and take a bite after dunking and sure enough, it tastes like an upscale spinach and artichoke dip. In a similar vein, panko-fried mozzarella ($10) tucks the "marinara" — represented here in the form of chopped sundried tomatoes — inside the breading as opposed to in an accompanying bowl. We'd prefer to dip the old-fashioned way.
There's both a beef burger ($13) and a beet burger ($13) on the menu. In fact, when you toss in the tossed salads, there is a disproportionately large number of vegan and vegetarian items. If you do go with that beet burger, "you really, really have to like beets," said my vegetarian companion one night, who bravely acquiesced to my direction. Little more than a loose patty of chopped beets and no bun, it's the opposite of comfort food.
For that, stick to the house mac and cheese ($14), an appropriately satisfying blend of pasta, melted cheese, sausage and sauce. Or go with the beef short ribs ($18), two flanks of pot roast-style braised beef perched in creamy polenta with braised greens. If you really, really like spaghetti squash, then you'll likely enjoy the squash ribbon pasta ($14), a heaping portion of crisp-tender spaghetti squash and assorted veggies in a tomatoey broth. Plans call for shifting dishes frequently, so don't bank on finding these items on your menu.
Since the Battery Park days, wine has always been a big part of this address. That's still the case, fortunately, where a great list feels so at peace with the exposed brick walls, flickering candlelight and sunset views. Throw in some craft beer and creative cocktails and it's not much of a stretch to imagine neighbors meeting here frequently to catch up over a bottle or two. Come summer, easy access to Edgewater Park will only increase the value of this convenient pre- or post-party spot in one of Cleveland's hottest zip codes.