American gastropub aims to shake up tradition in Little Italy

For decades, Cleveland’s Little Italy has been the city’s mecca for Italian cuisine, with dining venues in business across generations. Classic eateries such as Guarino’s, La Dolce Vita and Primo Vino feature authentic dishes cooked a casa, with recipes tracing back to the Old World.
But what about ordering a burger and a beer?
That's what Dominic Gogol had in mind when looking to start his Tavern of Little Italy, an American-style gastropub set to open later this month at 12117 Mayfield Road. On the site of the former legendary Mayfield Café and more recently a barber college, the newly chic 2,200-square-foot tavern features a modern bar with 14 taps, a burgundy interior designed by co-owner Eric Kennedy, and a slim alleyway patio that is scheduled to open in the spring. As for its American appeal, Gogol affirms he’s fine with delineating from tradition.
“Everywhere else in Little Italy you can get some good calamari, good chicken piccata, good veal Parmesan, good osso buco,” says Gogol. “Yet there’s no place in the neighborhood where you can get good American food. This is primarily what we’re doing.”
Along with co-owners Kennedy and Brian Hamilton, Gogol has opted for this venerable neighborhood spot in his hometown because, he says, “it was just natural to do so.” After breaking ground this past February, Gogol set out enlisting others to help build or invest in the venture. Almost all of then were friends and family, which makes the project, he says, “similar to an old barn raising.” Others joined on as part of the 20-person staff.
In fact, the communal vibe is where the Tavern of Little Italy inspired its slogan: “From The Hands of Many.”
With head chef Ian Esses as chief menu designer, Gogol hopes to capitalize on the more modern taste of today’s Little Italy residents. Hence, the two-floor, 80-seat pub will boast a 25-and-counting craft beer list and specialty wines to be paired with the likes of fish tacos and turkey burgers with homemade mustards -- all made from mostly local ingredients.

Yet both Esses and Gogol aren’t neglecting the heritage entirely. “Yes, there’ll be some garlic here and there, of course.” Gogol says. All because, Esses adds, “we need to remember where we’re at.”
With the mere mentioning of words such as “IPA” and “hamburger” it would seem that veterans of the neighborhood would balk at the very notion of an American style tavern in Little Italy. Robert Fatica, the 67-year-old owner of Primo Vino, however, welcomes Gogol’s venture with open arms.
“What Dominic is doing… is a little different,” says Fatica, who will soon celebrate 33 years in business at the corner of East 125th Street and Mayfield Road. “To me, it’s one of those places I’m looking forward to seeing finished. And, of course, going in and having a beer myself.”
As for inviting the new tavern into a very traditional neighborhood, Ray Kristosik, the executive director of the Little Italy Redevelopment Corporation, believes the gastropub will fare well alongside established eateries like Primo Vino, noting that diners are attracted to variety and choice.
“It definitely changes the scenery for the better,” Kristosik says of the soon to open tavern.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.