By Michael von Glahn, Cleveland Magazine
The first time in three weeks I was gonna play golf and look what happens,” restaurateur Carl Quagliata says, gesturing at the pouring rain outside and shaking his head. “Never fails.”
Because of the foul weather, Quagliata has had to fall back on his usual routine this Monday morning. Before 9:30 a.m., he is installed at his Ristorante Giovanni’s in Beachwood, answering early calls for dinner reservations and checking on the progress of a cleaner at work on a spill from Saturday night’s full house. A tub of fresh daffodils rests on a cart by the foyer, waiting to be artfully dispersed among the day’s floral arrangements.
In the course of the next hour, executive chef Jim Markusic, maitre d’ Pier-Luigi “Pierre” Gregori and the servers on duty for lunch – black-tie formalwear on hangers over their shoulders – all troop in, say their quiet good mornings and set to work.
This is the start of Quagliata’s day, six days a week. He spends a couple of hours at home in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner, but often he won’t leave the restaurant until after closing. Personal involvement is his management style. “You know, if you don’t have a lot of brains, you have to work hard,” he chuckles. “So that’s my problem.”
Despite his well-known modesty, credit Quagliata for both effort and smarts in the solid success of Giovanni’s, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. The continental restaurant is a repeat winner (nine times so far) of Four Diamonds from the AAA Ohio Motorists Association, one of only three eateries in Northeast Ohio to earn the honor this year. Giovanni’s also repeated for a Wine Spectator Best Award of Excellence.
For dinner, our party was seated in the Taproom, a small space of two booths, one table and a fireplace set between the bar and main dining room (this is the former Mantel Room). The only disadvantage – and one of the few cavils we have about our experience -was cigar smoke that drifted through from the bar later in our meal. Even then, the ventilation system seemed to keep the fumes to an undertone (and, luckily, in keeping with Giovanni’s clientele, it was at least a quality cigar, not a 20-cent La Stinkadora).
The restaurant underwent remodeling 12 years ago, and Quagliata started another renovation early in 1997 that never got past a test phase in the back room. Last fall, he brought in interior designer Paula Boykin, and she got it right.
The dining room is handsome with wheat-colored walls accented by touches of cream, gold and dark olive. Wine racks cover the front wall and the space is suffused with subdued, warm light and wafting notes of opera. There is less crystal overhead, so the space doesn’t feel as intimidating as it could in the old days.
There is seating for 24 in the bar, 90 in the main room. The wood-paneled back portion, known as the Picasso Room, can be closed off by glass doors to accommodate parties of 20 to 30.
Giovanni’s legendary service is apparent the moment you step through the thick, ornately carved wooden doors. Even with every table filled, a fresh warm ciabatta roll is on hand the moment the first is eaten, water glasses are constantly replenished, and all questions are answered politely and knowledgeably.
On one visit, we had the leisure to watch three staffers prep and serve soup and pasta entrees for three different tables from a single cart. These gentlemen and ladies are the restaurant equivalent of the Cleveland Orchestra, their motions precise and fluid, with the apparent effortlessness that only comes from long, earnest practice.
For dinner, we started with a bottle of 1995 Barolo Cannubi ($100) from Giovanni’s award-winning wine list. “Love in a bottle” is how one companion aptly described this robust Italian red. It suited our diverse array of appetizers admirably, from a daily special of tender lamb ravioli with portobello mushroom, rosemary and goat-cheese cream ($13.95) to a hearty, autumnal beef, mushroom and barley soup ($6.95).
Quality tells, and it was evident in an app of beef carpaccio in a mild, creamy aioli with crisp frisee ($11). Beforehand, we might have wished for a more garlicky aioli or a sharp mustard, but Quagliata and chef Markusic know what they’re doing. The flavor of good carpaccio is so subtle that it would be easy to overwhelm – and what then would be the point?
“I think when somebody orders something they should taste what they’re ordering,” Quagliata explains. “The product itself is so fantastic, I don’t wanna camouflage it.”
Salads are a la carte and the arrival of our choices set off a flurry of sharing around the table. Meaty grilled portobello slices on mesclun greens with a vibrant port vinaigrette ($9.50) are heavenly. Giovanni’s Caesar ($7.50) is a classic, if lacking in the salty anchovies that many feel make or break a Caesar.
Caesars are prepared tableside for groups, though Quagliata says he’ll do it himself if an individual diner requests the show biz.
He has scaled back the amount of tableside prep because the practice tended to stretch meals beyond four hours, as well as blocking aisles and breaking up smooth service. It’s one of many lessons he has amassed in almost 35 years in the restaurant trade.
Despite studying engineering at John Carroll University and a stint working as a draftsman for the city of Cleveland in his 20s, Quagliata knew all along that the food biz was where he belonged.
“As a 10-year-old kid, I always wanted a restaurant,” he remembers. “That’s all I thought about.” He’s not sure where the urge originated, since it wasn’t the family business: Quagliata’s father, Angelo, ran a grocery store on Cleveland’s East Side.
But Carl’s love of food isn’t hard to trace. His mother, Dorothy (“Dora”), hailed from the Campobasso region south of Naples, a cradle of great chefs. His father’s family came from Sicily and for them, everything revolved around cooking and eating.
Quagliata credits his mother, aunts and particularly his Sicilian grandmother, Josephine, for his own culinary skills. “It was like through osmosis,” he says, “because they were always cooking.” Most of Giovanni’s sauces, stocks and demiglazes are based on family recipes.
“If I like something, I ask for the recipe. That’s how I learned,” he says. “I never went to school, I never went to cooking school, I never worked in a restaurant.”
His first business foray was opening Quagliata’s White House restaurant in Mentor in 1967. Offering a blend of gourmet Italian fare and more typical spaghetti-house dishes, the White House lasted into the mid-1980s, when Quagliata says he had to close it because he didn’t have a lease on the property.
The fact that another restaurant was now closer to his heart probably had a hand in the decision, too. In 1976, Quagliata went into business with a cousin, Luke Manfredi, to open a fine-dining restaurant. After Quagliata had examined sites all around Cleveland, Manfredi brought him in to look at a ground-floor space in the Beachwood building where he had his office.
Quagliata liked what he saw, and Ristorante Giovanni’s (named for his favorite uncle) was born.
Giovanni’s is a family affair. Quagliata’s brother John works in the office, and their mother, at 87, still bakes about 300 pounds of pizzelles and other Italian cookies every week for Giovanni’s and Quagliata’s Tuscany restaurant at Eton Collection in Woodmere.
Quagliata himself only “plays around in the kitchen a little bit” these days, leaving the top spot in the skilled hands of Markusic, who cooked in Giovanni’s kitchen for 9 1/2 years, then vaulted to the Shoreby Club for six years before returning to Giovanni’s in 2000. “He’s got the old-fashioned ethic,” Quagliata says of his executive chef.
“He’s just a hard-working guy. This business is all hard work . … It’s just day and night. It’s 100 percent of your body, your mind, your soul, everything . … And [Markusic] fits that; he has those qualifications.”
Back in the White House days, a hired chef initially ran the kitchen, but difficulties quickly ensued and Quagliata had to take over. He recalls, “The chef said, `We can’t do this’ and `We can’t do that’ and `We can’t do this. And I said, `My God, I better get back there myself and see what we can do and what we can’t do.’ ” Quagliata discovered that he had absorbed more than he realized from all those generations of Italian women. Cooking “came very easily” to him.
Three of the four in our party flocked to the special list, which changes daily. The menu presents each dish in lengthy Italian with a simple English translation beneath for those who would rather wrap their tongues around rabbitand sweetbread-stuffed pasta than Tortelloni di Animelle a Coniglio in Sugo Naturale al Infuso di Allow.
Pan-roasted swordfish fillet alla Diavolo ($29.95) was a winner. Laden with crushed red pepper, shrimp, rings of calamari, sliced squash and organic romano beans, the fillet was at least 3 inches thick, with flavor to rival a fine beefsteak.
Also from the specials, seared salmon fillet ($28.95) topped by lump blue-crab meat and napped with a citrus-scented bearnaise sauce proved a treat. The salmon was of excellent quality and, again, portioned very generously. Roasted new potatoes made for an addictive side.
Though mightily tempted by roast Canadian duck with wild risotto, red currants and orange demi-sauce ($24.50), we opted for a classic beef dish from the regular menu to weigh against all the seafood at the table: char-grilled filet mignon with herb-roasted potatoes ($33). We ordered it at the far rare end of medium-rare and our server advised us that this was a good choice, since the kitchen “likes to undercook.” The aged filet, tender enough to cut with a sharp glance, arrived prepared perfectly to order. Lolling plumply atop a Chianti reduction, its flavor was nothing short of superb. If anyone spotted a tear in our eye after the last bite, it wasn’t the wailing of Pagliacci that caused it.
The hard menu only gets a makeover every couple of years. “Not too often,” Quagliata says. “We don’t want to confuse the guests.” He also doesn’t want them looking for a favorite dish only to find it gone.
But he’d still like to trim the number of offerings, and he and his staff have been working on a new fall menu for months. He’s already trotted out a new lunch menu. Among the additions are four sandwiches ($10.95 to $12) and a resurrected Parmigiano and egg-battered chicken entree that was known as “chicken a la Giovanni” when it debuted 25 years ago.
On our lunch visit, we could hardly help but race through tender lobster ravioli with shiitake mushrooms and tomato in a lobster bisque-butter sauce ($15.95). It’s not often one can describe pasta as “melt in your mouth,” but each bite of this came as close as we’ve ever found. The slightly apple crispness of a glass of 1999 Boscaini pinot grigio ($7) made a nice counterpoint to the lobster’s sweet tones.
Anna Selvaggio, who makes all of Giovanni’s pastas, has been with the restaurant since its opening. “She’s overqualified for the job,” Quagliata says, noting that Selvaggio was a head chef before the restaurant where she worked burned down. Her misfortune was Giovanni’s windfall. As expected for a place with such strong Italian roots, pasta is done right at Giovanni’s. All pastas are dished from a sauté pan kept covered over a warming flame on the serving cart.
Despite the primo pasta and the Italian verbiage on the menu, Quagliata says that Giovanni’s “is not as Italian as everybody thinks it is. I tried to make it very Italian initially, and that first menu lasted maybe a year and a half . … Then we changed to a more cosmopolitan menu, basically the same type of menu we have right now.”
He has branched out in other directions at other restaurants, including Tuscany at Eton Collection, the short-lived Tuscany 55 on Public Square in partnership with the owners of nearby John Q’s Steakhouse, and Posto Vecchio at Great Northern Mall. One of his greatest coups was Piccolo Mondo, the popular corner restaurant that many credit with solidifying the Warehouse District as a dining and nightlife destination in the ’90s.
But in the past couple of years, Quagliata has begun consolidating, backing off. Posto Vecchio, in North Olmsted, was too far away for him to personally shepherd its growth, so he shut it down. Then he sold off Piccolo to the owners of the Hyde Park chain.
“I tried opening other kinds of restaurants … but I just feel like this is my niche,” he says of Giovanni’s. “I enjoy this better than the others. I enjoy the others, but I enjoy this much better.”
We enjoyed it, too. For dessert ($8.95 each), we tried a chocolate truffle cake sided by a scoop of dolce de leche ice cream in a tuile nest, along with jumbo blackberries, currants, raspberries. The cake was firm and slightly bittersweet, with a center of molten chocolate. Tiramisu arrived fluffy, moist and light, as is proper though we might have wished for a heavier hand when adding the Marsala and espresso, for a bit more of a flavor kick.
Service paced the meal nicely, allowing relaxed conversation between courses.
“I think service is more important than the food,” states Quagliata. “I mean, you have to have good food anyway, otherwise you won’t exist. But I think service is more important than the food ’cause bad service can turn your mind against the food, can make the food taste different.”
The hosts who set the tone for service at Giovanni’s have been Pierre Gregori, who has been in the restaurant biz since he was 14, and the much-beloved Jacques Laumier, 86, who is finally facing up to retirement.
Quagliata first encountered Laumier at the old Leonello’s at Chagrin Boulevard and Lee Road. When the restaurant closed in the late ’70s, Laumier and most of the other Leonello’s waiters came to Giovanni’s. “He’s been here ever since,” Quagliata says. “He’s like a fixture. People come to see him.”
Service may be black-tie, but, contrary to common perception, Giovanni’s rescinded its jackets-required policy about a dozen years ago.
In 1976, the week Giovanni’s opened, Quagliata learned just how much enforcing proper attire rubbed some people the wrong way. He politely and apologetically informed two men in a group of eight of the jackets-required rule for the dining room. The men grew loudly belligerent and refused the offer of loaner jackets. After storming out, they set fire to the shrubbery by the building’s entrance.
Fireworks of a gentler sort may be in evidence later this month when Quagliata says Giovanni’s will stage a weeklong celebration to mark its anniversary.
Since he only has room for 150 at a time, Quagliata might need to block out more than a week to accommodate all the diners who will want to salute the treasure that is Giovanni’s.
-Michael von Glahn