Eddie Zalar's childhood was spent picking fresh ingredients from his parents' garden and accompanying his grandmother to her catering job at the Slovenian National Home in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. When he took the leap last August to open Nora (2181 Murray Hill Rd., 216-231-5977, noracleveland.com) in Little Italy, it was a move long in the works.
"It's what I wanted to do since I was young," he says. "I never gave it a second thought."
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Zalar cooked in Cape Cod and Colorado. He returned to the Northeast where he worked at SoHo's Rouge et Blanc and Tribeca's Smith & Mills.
At Nora, he tries to balance his upscale Manhattan roots and the restaurant's rustic, Old-World charm.
"I felt we could give a twist on Italian cuisine given my experience with French technique mixed with the farm-to-table movement," says Zalar.
Mapping his journey, Zalar shares the five dishes that shape his work.
Being raised in Northeast Ohio with Slovenian roots, we ate a lot of Eastern European food. My mom loves to make strudel and there was never a shortage of breads, croissants and cookies in the house. Now she's the pastry chef for Nora and makes gelato, tiramisu, and doughnuts made with lemon gelato, lemon curd, and rolled in cardamom sugar and served with blueberries. I ate those doughnuts all the time as a kid.
Bone marrow, John Palmer's Bistro 44
It was my first job in the kitchen and I remember watching the cooks suck the marrow out. We ate bone marrow growing up, and when I saw it at the restaurant I thought they were using scraps. The chefs said, "No, this is the good stuff." I thought, "This is a delicacy? Are you kidding me?" Now, whenever my wife and I go out, we try to get it and occasionally run it on our own menu.
Scallops, Wequassett Inn Resort (Cape Cod)
I saw the scallops twitching in their shell and I thought, "That's the freshest thing I've ever had." I was working for Bill Brodsky and he had a signature dish, scallops in a potato basket. It was a really simple, but very refined, dish served with lobster risotto, baby greens, heirloom tomatoes and saffron aioli. It taught me that you shouldn't mask the flavor of anything as perfect as that scallop. You find the best ingredients you can and enhance it.
Baby kale salad, Smith & Mills
When I was a sous chef here, I worked with Nick Korbee and he had a way of making things you've had a million times really, really great. He made a baby kale salad with rosé sparkling pink champagne and black pepper vinaigrette. Even though it's a salad, you still have to make it the best that you can. Give it the same attention you'd give your special of the day or your signature dish.
Fresh pasta, La Bottega (Colorado)
I was cooking for Stephen Virion and he had worked at places around the world. I just wanted to do what he did: travel and learn as much as you can from people. He had an incredible work ethic and I loved his philosophy: Even though something's going to take longer to do, do it right. He was making fresh pastas and making his own pizza doughs. His raviolis were always great. I think it's ironic that, even though they're very different, ravioli is now one of our most popular dishes.