Italian Dining to Restore the Soul

In the mid-18th century when a Parisian tavern keeper, one M. Boulanger, coined the word “restaurant” from the French restaurer (“to restore”), he was describing an experience more satisfying than the mere consumption of a professionally cooked meal. His specialty of the house was sheep’s feet simmered in white sauce—a delicacy, he insisted, that not only fed the appetite but restored the soul.

Scarcely a week goes by in Northeast Ohio without the opening of yet another new dining spot boasting fresh, local produce and the fertile imagination of an ambitious young chef. These are worthy places all, yet I can think of none that so completely deserves to be called a “restaurant” as Aldo’s, a little hole-in-the-wall that’s been around for 33 years.

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From the outside, Aldo’s is so unprepossessing that even now, after I’ve dined there dozens of times, I’m still apt to miss the turn into its parking area off Memphis Avenue in the old suburb of Brooklyn. Nothing about its façade, not the modest red script of its name or the replica of the Italian tri-colored flag, hints at what lies behind the nondescript aluminum and glass door.

Inside, your eyes need a second or two to adjust to the dim, warm lighting. The entranceway is lined with family photographs, framed reviews and soccer memorabilia, including a team picture that includes a short, muscular fellow who turns out to be Aldo Zappa when he was a high-scoring midfielder for the Inter-Italians, the last Cleveland soccer club to reach the national finals.

You can take in the entire dining area at a glance: the Formica-topped tables and the banquettes covered in a geometric pattern out of the 1950s; the photographs of Italian landscapes and a street market in Palermo; the family photographs, including one of Aldo’s white-haired mother stirring a large sauce pot with a long wooden spoon; the portrait of Aldo himself, raising a glass of wine and looking like an impish pope.

Some restaurants roar. Aldo’s hums. The absence of tablecloths invites you to lean forward and plunge into conversation. This is a room you want to settle into.

Aldo’s menu contains no surprises: sautéed calamari, mussels marinara, eggplant Parmigiana, rigatoni with meatballs or sausage, chicken Marsala, chicken Cacciatore, veal piccata, veal Sicilian, zuppa di pesce and so forth. These are standard dishes at the countless “Italian-American” restaurants of a certain vintage, throughout Northeast Ohio and America. But there is nothing standard about how Aldo’s prepares them.

Good Italian cooking prizes freshness of ingredients and a delicate balance of textures and flavors. The pasta must be al dente—just chewable. Chicken and veal must be juicy and tender. Tomato sauce must be enlivened, but not too much, with garlic and onion. Maybe a touch of red pepper flakes. Shellfish must be caressed, but not too much, by olive oil, lemon and parsley. I recall a Venetian chef telling me that the goal of Italian cooking is to “bring out complexity within simplicity.” Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Aldo’s cooking achieves all this and something else essential to old-fashioned Italian dining at its best: a sense of familiarity. Although everything must taste as though it was cooked to order—and much at Aldo’s is cooked to order—it must also suggest timelessness, the feeling of recipes handed down through generations. Tuck into Aldo’s Linguine Special, a Vesuvius of scampi, shrimp, mussels and fresh clams in a red clam sauce over glistening noodles, and you’re back on that first trip to Rome or Naples, real or imagined. The sumptuous lasagna, swimming in a mildly spicy sauce of tomatoes, pork, veal and beef, will bring back whatever guilty pleasures you’ve tried to repress.

Aldo’s cooking has been described as “family style,” but it is family style executed by a highly trained chef who knows how to do what he does with consistent excellence. Over a recent lunch of penne Bolognese and a crisp green salad, Aldo, who looks just as fit as he did in his soccer-playing days, told me about what has made Aldo’s what it is. Born in 1954, he grew up in the village of Ataleta in the mountainous Abruzzi region, east of Rome. His father was a master cobbler who survived 13 years as a prisoner of war during World War II in Eritrea “making shoes for the generals.” His mother worked at a hotel in the Abruzzi ski resort of Roccaraso. At 14, Aldo entered a cooking school and graduated two years later. In 1970, he came to America to join an older brother, a tailor, in Cleveland. “Italy in 1970,” he said, “was not the best place to be.”

For the next decade or so, he was chef at the Blue Fox, an upscale Italian hangout for high rollers in Lakewood. He married his wife, Denise, and they settled in Brooklyn. Their son Matteo was born in 1981, followed by two daughters, Christina and Ernestina.

“I wanted to have my own place, but I had no money—I had to get a loan,” Aldo told me. “The little mall was here and the neighborhood was OK, but this place was so bad-looking the deliverymen wouldn’t drop things off. For two years I worked 20 hours a day. I was cook, dishwasher, everything. I made espresso out of a home-kitchen pot on a four-burner stove. [His current stove has eight burners.] My wife quit her job to help me. One night she came home crying. ‘Honey,’ she said, ‘I’ll do anything for you, but don’t ask me to work in the kitchen with you. I can’t take it.’”

Today, Aldo has “four to six” full-time employees, including two cooks, whom he trained to “cook Italian”: a tall Ukrainian named Konstantine and a Dominican named Felix. Denise still pitches in, and Matteo buys the vintages that comprise the superb wine list. (“Matteo knows how to do everything—more than he thinks he knows,” his father says.)

Because the kitchen is so small—it occupies less than a fifth of the restaurant’s 700 square feet—storage is tight. “I could use more space,” Aldo said, “but this way, you have to buy everything fresh. I get most of my meat and fish from Blue Ribbon [the West Side food wholesaler], but I go everywhere for produce. No matter where you go, you have to look, you have to feel, you have to see. We use a lot of dry pasta, but we make everything else— the veal crepes, the gnocchi, the cavatelli, even the prosciutto.”

I press him for some special recipes, but he only nods vaguely and looks away. Then he tells me what I suspect is the real recipe for Aldo’s success:

“We only have about 37 seats,” he says, “but I have the best clientele in the business. They come in two, three times a week, sometimes twice a day, and say, ‘Aldo, what do you got today? Anything good?’ People come here for their anniversary. I say, ‘Why here? Why not a fancy place?’ They say, ‘We come here to feel comfortable, to talk to you, to talk to people sitting next to us.’ I know my clientele. I know what they want—one wants it less al dente, another wants it more al dente. I can do anything the way you want it—just ask. I don’t advertise. You walk in, I give you a shot of grappa to make you relax. That’s advertising.”

Matteo, Aldo’s personable son, sits down and pours us glasses of an excellent Valpolicella. He says, “My father always said, ‘It’s not how much money you make, it’s doing what you love to do.’ He never floated away. He stayed on the ground.”

“Salute!” says Aldo, raising his glass.

I raise mine. I glance around the tiny room, the tiny kitchen. “Have you ever thought of moving?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, “I’m going for a bike ride.”
“I mean the restaurant.”
He looks at me, both eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Are you kidding?”

Aldo’s is located at 8459 Memphis Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side. Call 216.749.7060 for reservations.