After twenty-five years, Giovanni’s is still making magic in Beachwood

By Benjamin Gleisser

You don’t go to Ristorante Giovanni’s when you want Italian food. You go when you desire enchanting fine dining.

Even owner Carl Quagliata admits his Beachwood restaurant’s main competition are upscale downtown heavy hitters: “Sans Souci and Johnny’s are the closest to what we do. Our niche is very small – we cater to the one-tenth of 1 percent of the population who come in for the ambiance and expect magical things.”

In terms of magic, don’t expect Quagliata to pull a rarebit out of a hat, or any other cups and sorcery. The closest Giovanni’s gets to sleight of hand is when servers appear at just the right time to take your plates or refill your wineglass.

This attentiveness to service earned Giovanni’s an unprecedented ninth straight Four Diamond Award from the American Automobile Association. This designation of excellence is noted in AAA guidebooks, which point travelers toward spots that are guaranteed to provide a top-notch dining experience. The only other eatery in northeast Ohio to win a Four Diamond last year was the Baricelli Inn in Cleveland (fifth straight award).

“My philosophy is `Treat every customer as if that person is only going to visit us once,’ ” Quagliata says. “I preach precision and perfection. We’re only as good as what we did today.”

And the staff practices what he preaches. On the day we visited, an August afternoon so hot even the devil was begging a glass of water, we found Giovanni’s cool environment of earthy browns perfect for a dinner prepared with kitchen wizardry and presented with impeccable service.

THE CONCRETE BUNKER-LIKE building at Chagrin Boulevard and Richmond Road housing Giovanni’s resembles a place you’d seek shelter in during a nuclear attack. Only a small sign on the southeast corner of the intersection (the restaurant is negotiating with Beachwood for bigger signage) announces Giovanni’s location.

When you enter the building, look for the burnished-brown wood double doors with large buttons for handles. Pull open the doors and enter another world, a curious yet imaginative place that invites you to peel away a few layers of reality and relax.

Interior designer Paula Jo Boykin renovated the restaurant last year, and she clothed the dining room in layers of tan fabrics, leatherette seats and shimmery drapes. Alabaster half-dome ceiling fixtures and frosted sconces on the tan walls create an elegant, golden glow. A second dining room, behind the main area, is a wood-paneled room with Cubist Picasso prints and a grand fireplace. During special occasions and power lunches, glass doors can separate the space from the rest of the restaurant.

Most nights, you’re greeted at the maitre d’s desk by Pier Luigi Gregori, a slender, bubbly fellow who seems so happy to see you, you expect him to give you a kiss. Eschewing a pre-dinner drink in the lounge – a small, square room with a chic, black granite-topped bar (we loved the gilded gold-colored frame around the television over the top shelf of liquors: TV as art) – our party of three entered the dining room.

We began with appetizers off the day’s specials list: a savory bowl of mushroom beef barley soup ($6.50) and escargot topped with puff pastry ($12.95) in a delicate garlic butter and parsley Chardonnay wine sauce. The hearty broth was comforting, and tender, fresh beef chunks were a portent of what was to come. After finishing the plump escargot, we sopped up the sauce with our bread. Had we not been in a classy restaurant, we might have fought over who got to lick the plate.

Quagliata says he prefers a traditional menu – in fact, many of the dishes prepared by executive chef Jim Markusic (who returned to Giovanni’s in 2000 after seven years at the Shoreby Club) are based on recipes concocted by Quagliata’s grandmother. At the same time, Quagliata constantly works to fine-tune the offerings: A new menu is due this fall.

“Young cooks today shy away from structure, which is so important in food preparation and presentation,” Quagliata says. “We try to do a little fusion, but we want to be as authentic as possible. We cook from a woman’s point of view.”

Well, mamma mia, it works. The ten-ounce char-grilled filet mignon ($33) cooked rare was perfect. The tall cut of butter-knife-tender beef was served with herb-roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables in a chianti reduction. To achieve its delectable texture, the meat ages for three weeks in the refrigerator in a Cryovac, an airtight plastic bag. The rack of lamb (market price; $42 on our visit) ages similarly. The domestic double French-cut lamb chops – which we requested mediumrare, but came rare – were accompanied by a brick of flavorful scalloped potatoes and mixed vegetables. The hearty chops were topped by caramelized onions, which gave the dish a zesty zing, and served in a shallot reduction.

And what’s an Italian restaurant without pasta? Chef Anna Salvaggio has been making perfect pasta at Giovanni’s for twenty-five years. Tender and fresh, and with just the right amount of chew, the linguine that accompanied the mix of lobster, shrimp, clams and mussels ($24.95) was heavenly. Pasta dishes at Giovanni’s are begun in the oven, then finished sauté-style tableside so the dish won’t sit for even a moment under a heat lamp. Tableside cooking also enabled the distinctive flavors of the seafood to meld with the pasta’s lightly spicy tomato-thyme sauce.

For dessert, we shared a tuile ($8.95) tower made of caramelized custard, filled with raspberry sorbet and garnished with fresh berries, and a creme brûlée ($8.95) so satiny smooth, you could’ve sucked it up through a straw. We just wish that, given the tableside cooking service, the brûlée had been brought to the table flambé.

One final note: The service was excellent. We grilled our server on each dish and he knew the ingredients, his wine recommendations (we drink by the glass) fit our respective entrees, he checked during each course to see if we were pleased and he kept an unobtrusive eye on us from various spots in the dining room.

Quagliata wouldn’t have it any other way: “The hardest part of running a restaurant is motivating younger waiters. You can never become arrogant or feel invincible because you’re having a good night. Waiters have to read every table, and they should talk to their people. People who don’t say anything don’t return.”