Spennato's  makes familiar Italian with a quality that's hard to find

Friday, February 23, 2007
David Farkas
Special to the Cleveland Plain Dealer

It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to suggest Egidio Spennato follows a similar tradition. He hails from Italy (Monte Cassino) and whips up a good tomato sauce in the intimate digs of his Northfield restaurant. The dining room's quiet lighting, Euro-styling and romantic music, for example, should delight couples intent on getting to know each other without emptying a wallet. When I announced our visit was a pre-Valentine's Day treat, the hostess cooed her approval and led us to a nice booth.

About the tomato sauce: I sampled it on my first stop, slathered atop a bubbly crust that supported soft pieces of artichoke and a canvas of mild cheese ($14.24, large, one topping). It was the best pizza I'd had in a long time. Another version of lusty tomato sauce turned up in hearty Pasta alla Amatriciana, in which pancetta, red peppers and crushed tomatoes mingle with basil, garlic and olive oil.

When I ordered it, the waiter startled me by inquiring which pasta shape I wanted. Wait, isn't that up to the kitchen? Apparently not. You can pick from 11 types, including gnocchi, which runs $1 extra. One my second stop, curiously, the server didn't ask.

Pesto also demonstrates Spennato's skill at making sauce. A generous coating on orecchiette (the small, ear-shaped pasta) is redolent of fresh basil and pine nuts -- a dark-green surprise in the depths of a very white winter ($13.95). Those who expect to discover clamshells among the noodles may frown at Spennato's take on the classic Linguine e Vongole Salsa ($12.95). Instead, to my joy, he fills a bowl with tender heaps of chopped little necks surrounded by a lightly seasoned garlic sauce. The complimentary ciabatta (among three breads offered) makes mop-up duty easy.

You'll also want to employ the crusty loaf to soak up any vestige of Italian Wedding Soup ($3.25), in which sharply flavored meatballs bob in a rich sea of chicken broth.

Not every sauce works. The big sweet hit one associates with marsala fails to materialize, though the flattened piece of veal underneath is flavorful if a bit chewy ($15.95). Barbecue sauce on a less-than-traditional pizza that includes dry bits of chicken ($10.49, small) reminds me of the bottled stuff, though I have no way of knowing its provenance. In any case, the kitchen really ought to leave this one to the Californians.

Desserts, at $3.95 each, seem like a bargain. All but the cannoli are brought in from an outside vendor, said a waitress. Cloyingly sweet tiramisu proves it. The homemade cannoli, on the other hand, are brilliant. I would have gobbled up these creamy tubes even if they had come in a can.

David Farkas frequently writes about food and restaurants.

Taste Italy !