- Walter Novak
- Chef-owner Dominic Cerino holds fast to "slow-food" cooking.
Popular restaurants, like cruise ships, can't be turned around on a dime. Adopting a new course, no matter how desirable, takes foresight, conviction, and plenty of time.
For proof, check in on Dominic and Carmen Cerino, third-generation chef-owners at Carrie Cerino's Ristorante, the rambling North Royalton institution founded by their grandmother in 1963. Buying the family business in 1998 was the easy part; the exacting element has emerged in the eight years since, as the siblings have labored to nudge the family's old-style Italian restaurant into modern culinary currents.
Their efforts have picked up steam in the past year, as the Cerinos have begun stocking the pantry with heritage-breed pork, certified organic chicken, and artisanal Italian sausages and meats called salumi. The resulting menu is a gentle departure from the restaurant's former fare -- one that fuses the kitchen's beloved homemade sauces and pastas with boutique ingredients like Clare Island salmon (farm-raised but organic, from the chilly waters off the coast of Ireland) and organic blue eggs, gathered from Aracuana chickens at Breychak Farms, in nearby Columbia Station.
"I guess I could have just kept on doing what we had been doing," says exec chef Dominic, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. "But that's not the way I was brought up. Once I find an ingredient that I know is superior, I have a hard time using anything else."
Take Cerino's sophisticated antipasto board for two, decked out with olives, cheeses, dried fruits, nuts, and cured meats, featuring some of the extraordinary offerings from Seattle's Armandino Batali, the famed artisanal salumi maker (and father of celebrity chef Mario Batali).
During our visits, sheer, well-marbled tissues of Batali's sweet-and-spicy coppa joined weightless disks of his fennel-studded finocchiona and ginger-piqued "Salumi Salami" as the main attraction. Rosy sheets of heirloom-breed Berkshire pork prosciutto, shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a wedge of buttery Bel Paese, and a warm miniloaf of freshly baked focaccia rounded out the offerings, for a first course as transporting as a Tuscan picnic.
(Cerino's wine list, incidentally, includes a number of moderately priced Italian and domestic options, by the bottle or the glass. We never got past the imported Peroni [$4], a crisp, semi-dry lager, served icy cold with a well-chilled mug.)
To follow, consider the almost unspeakably indulgent spaghetti alla carbonara, a house specialty of toothsome homemade pasta, cooked just al dente and tossed with organic blue egg yolks, bits of Batali's bacon-like cured pork jowl (guanciale), and Parmesan and Romano cheeses. For connoisseurs of fine pasta, there can be nothing better between New York and San Francisco.
Fork-tender slices of Berkshire pork tenderloin, shellacked in a delicate piccata sauce, were another memorable combination; the sauce's subtle lemon notes left plenty of room for the vivid pork flavor to shine through, and a garnish of capers and freshly chopped parsley lent clean, refreshing highlights.
Clare Island salmon was a revelation too. Unlike most farm-raised salmon -- with its watery texture, metallic flavor, and "off" aromas -- this variety, raised in cold waters on a natural diet, tasted just right: firm, fragrant, and full of well-calibrated goodness. Wisely, Cerino honors the fish by keeping its preparation simple: a stroke of olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, and a brief char-broiling, and it was ready to join the feast.
And a feast it was: Despite the top-shelf ingredients and respectful preparations, Cerino's prices are nearly as retro as its well-maintained '70s-style decor.
Take that salmon as a measure. Like almost all the entrées, the fish was just the centerpiece of a belly-busting meal, one that started with loaves of home-baked bread, a choice of well-appointed salad or homemade Italian wedding soup, and an ample side dish, ranging from fresh veggies or a baked potato to saffron-piqued risotto or -- our recommendation -- more of the kitchen's fresh spaghetti, topped with any one of seven homemade sauces. We tried most of them, and can recommend Ma Ma's Famous White Sauce, with whipped butter and freshly grated Parmesan; the spicy marinara, with a hint of black pepper and red chiles; or the pesto, with its essences of garlic and basil.
Even with a shared treat from the dessert tray -- perhaps a cream puff, a slab of cassata cake, or cookies from the onsite bakery -- it's entirely possible to spend less than $25 per person, yet leave with leftovers for the next day's lunch.
Of course, there is a certain irony in Cerino's adoption of "slow-food" principles. "It's actually sort of funny," says Dominic. "When my grandmother was growing up, food was what you grew in your garden or raised in your backyard. People have gotten away from that, but in some ways, I think we're taking the restaurant full circle, back to its roots and to where our passion for food first began."
We think so too. And we're guessing that when it comes to the course correction, Grandma Cerino would be the first on board.