Crossing Cleveland’s Cuyahoga from a Faux Jewish Deli to a Real Italian Joint with a Flight in Between

After a bit of a break, the request to pay my $25 renewal fee for my web domain reminded me that I need to at least attempt to justify the cost to keep the name and a recent jaunt down to the Midwest seems a perfect start to the new fiscal year.

The intent was to eat my way through parts of Ohio starting in Cleveland and ending in Columbus.  As usual, these gluttonous escapades usually encompass a combination of James Beard nominees, triple D’s and some degree of celebrity chef stalking. I’m no stranger to the city of Rock and Roll but the Buckeye city is new to me.

I figured there was no better place to start than Ohio City, the trendy Cleveland suburb on the West side of the Cuyahoga river. The plan was to head to the Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, a deli nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the best new restaurant category this year.  Set in a old firehouse, the interior looked like a library of hipster libations. Bottles of homemade palatable potions lined the walls and the utensils were shelved atop an antique stove tucked away in the corner. Despite the cooler full of kosher pickles and deli salads, it’s hard to call this a true Jewish deli.  Sure, I could have ordered gefilte fish or rugulach as well but there was no shortage of pork on the menu either.  In fact, I opted for a from scratch pork shoulder Reuben.  The bologna sandwich, which I assumed contained some sort of non-cud chewing creature but was too afraid to ask, was also unorthodox…at least in Cleveland terms.  It seems a standard Cleveland Bologna sandwich is adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo whereas Larder’s take used carrots and old (sharp) cheddar.  Despite the deviations, both sandwiches were creative and thoughtful and demonstrated the from scratch mentality reminiscent of the phenomenal Reuben at Lucky’s cafe a few miles down the road.

Satisfied with foodstuffs, I wanted to tickle my thirst sensors with a jaunt back down the road to Bookhouse Brewing on W 25th.   This time the walls were donned with books instead of bottles and games instead of gherkins.  It seemed sensible to opt for a sampler of drafts which included Life in a Northern Town (the word northern is certainly subjective given my home town is over 800 km north of Ohio City although it could be paying homage to the 1985 Dream Academy song), Study Session IPA (a reminder of the many university exam cramming sessions that ended up with a pint in hand), Bricks and Mortar (such a hipster term)  and a brilliant Key Lime Three out of Five Gose. The experiment lead to a couple of Crowlers (specifically the first two), a 32 ounce emperor can spun to seal after filling.  I figured downing a half gallon of Key Lime would have been like eating a whole pie vs just a slice.

I had no idea as to the importance of summer family reunions in US culture.  Upon checking into the Embassy suites that night in Cleveland’s Beachwood area, I realized the lobby was inundated with red, yellow and green shirts representing a few clusters of families from all over America.  When I asked the bartender later that night, she informed me that a chunk of summer banquet business are family reunions and outlined the normal itinerary; meet, mingle (plus/minus argument), picnic, formal dinner, church and/or depart depending on the amount of time it takes to get home.  In fact, she was not attending her own reunion given the fact it was in Jacksonville, Florida which was too far and much too humid.

Dinner plans included a conquest of my only outstanding Diner, Drive-In and Dive in Cleveland.  Geraci’s, a long standing Italian joint originated in the University Heights area, recently opened a second location in Pepper Pike.  Although not the original and official DDD location, I chose the latter because it was a lot closer to the hotel and took reservations.   I felt like a little less of a cheater when I saw Guy’s smiling face hanging on the wall.

Geraci’s followed the classic Italian restaurant blueprint; bread, salad (Americanized with shredded mozzarella cheese), pizza, pasta and a handful of classic Italian desserts.  However, with a number of clever cocktails and craft beer on the menu, they did colour outside the lines a bit which did remind me that I wasn’t at the likes of  Tony V’s in Sudbury.  For example, cute clothes pins and Ohio’s own Raspberry-infused Watershed Gin resulted in a creation that was another notch on my pink drink bedpost.

Guy’s promise of great pepperoni was fulfilled on a simple pizza with some added sausage.  The crust was a bit on the crunchy side and overall the excessive saltiness was somewhat saved by the fresh vibrant sauce.  The same sauce was the basis of a very classic and delicious lasagna which would be the same way to describe the tiramisu.

In the end, it was a good day with a game of true and false, some sudsy studies and an old school Italian place which had a family vibe that partially replaced being left out of the multitude of family reunions at the hotel I was at. With the Cleveland core surrounded, day two would involve a trip downtown in search of another brew or two and a maybe a game of Symon says.

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Review:You Gotta Eat Here:Barrie:Pie Wood Fired Pizza

John Catucci left a bad taste in my mouth after my visit to Dr. Laffa. So I must admit a was a bit reluctant to place a take out order at Pie Wood Fired Pizza during a recent trip to Barrie. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I picked up the phone and ordered three pies for the trip home. This isn’t an easy task, however, since there are around 20 choices ranging from classic pies, crazy pies and hold the tomato pies.  There is even a $100 fois gras and black truffle pizza.

Pie Wood Fired Pizza is located in one of the many large malls that hug the 400.  Easy to see from the highway, it’s slightly harder to find.  Based on the menu (and the name of the restaurant), pizza is the mainstay and it supported by some pastas, sandwiches and appetizers from calamari to salty balls. Upon arrival, I noticed that the front was plastered with You Gotta Eat Here propaganda.   For example, there was a rather large poster with a proclamation from John Catucci himself….”I love the taste of pie…it’s delicious”.

SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza
SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza

The interior is a cross between an Italian bistro and a sports bar.  Its quite open with nicely spaced tables and a large bar along the back.  The walls are lined with posters and paraphernalia  with plenty of pie, pizza and beer references.  A blackboard explains the daily drink specials (long island ice tea, ceasars etc for $6).  I paid for the pies and went on my way.

Pizza one was the Pepperoni pie…the easy solution for any child under the age of 10. There was no shortage of any of the promised toppings and passed the kid test quite easily.  It had that crust pliability that provides great entertainment value as well as taste for the young ones. Not bad for $12 either.

Pizza two was the St. Lucia pie…a Hawaiian type topped with tomato, pineapple, house smoked bacon, mozzarella and shredded coconut.  Other than the coconut, I have yet to understand the correlation between the name and the toppings.  That aside, it was a delicious pizza.  The bacon was sliced thin and  full of flavour.  Chunks of fresh pineapple and the subtle use of coconut add a delicious sweetness.  The toppings were abundant but didn’t compromise the integrity of the delicate thin crust.

pie st lucia

The third pie was the tomatoless cow pie, named for the use of braised beef shank as the main protein.  It reminded me of a steakhouse dinner on a crust as it came complete with roasted potato, spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheese Sauce and parmesan. Once again, despite the cornucopia of toppings, the crust was not compromised at all.  The pototoes were tender and the ingredients were presented in a good proportion.

Cow Pie $14.50
Cow Pie $14.50

My Take

Traditionally, really good thin crust pizzas are reserved for  enotecas  such as Queen Margarita or Terroni located along the trendy streets of urban centres.  One wouldn’t suspect some of the best pizza going lives in a commercial area in Barrie, Ontario. The concept is brilliant; make pizza the mainstay of a sports/casual  bar theme.  Instead of serving a default, thick-crusted, warmed up pizza in order to add diversity to a burger and fry centric menu, Pie makes pizza the star. Sure, some of the crazy pies may appear a bit gimmicky (eg. captain pie liner, hedge hog, green egg and ham etc.) but I don’t doubt each is made with the same attention to detail as the ones I ordered to make a stellar product.Although I can’t comment on the service in the restaurant, it will be a place I will at least think about when driving to and from Northern Ontario instead of hitting the En Route or one of the many crowded chains along Bayfield street.

In the end, I fully agree with John Catucci…

“I love the taste of pie.”

Hmmm…now how would I add one of those winky faces?

Pie on Urbanspoon