A perfect slice of Cleveland: Little Italy

There’s a phrase you’ll hear often here in Little Italy, from third-generation locals to fresh-faced newcomers: This is my neighborhood.

One of the most tight-knit, traditional neighborhoods thriving on Cleveland’s east side, Little Italy is a bite-sized goldmine for hearty cuisine, a classy nightlife and a place to appreciate local arts. Its history as a haven for pre-war Italian immigrants still shines brightly before the backdrop of surrounding universities and urban development. From its legendary bakeries to affable characters, if you’ve got an afternoon to kill, Murray Hill is the perfect place to do it. And if you don't want to deal with the parking hassle, arrive in style and unencumbered courtesy of the new Little Italy-University Circle Rapid Station that connects this quirky grid of streets to points across the city and beyond - even to the rest of the world, considering the westernmost terminus of the Red Line is none other than Cleveland Hopkins airport.

Enjoying a cannoli on Murray Hill

Although Piccola Italia, the tiny neighborhood situated around the intersection of Mayfield and Murray Hill Roads in University Circle, is the place to be for Columbus Day or The Feast of the Assumption (La Festa to locals), it's also peppered with offbeat and historic treasures not immediately visible to the outsider. That's the irony of the place: that Little Italy is actually kind of, well, big, particularly when it's time to mangia.

A Little Competition among Friends
In a cutthroat culinary world of celebrity chefs packing tables in haute cafés and restaurants, Little Italy’s top chefs, with decades of experience under their white coats, may be somewhat of an anomaly. Trading stern competition for a heartfelt community, ignoring past squabbles over “best marinara” or “best cassata cake to bring to your cousin Frank’s wedding,” eateries in the neighborhood take pride in their idiosyncratic recipes and their Murray Hill interconnectivity. Hey, what’s a little competition among friends, eh?

Start with the bakeries.
For a macaroon or sfogliatelle (and, yes, you want one), grab a ticket at Presti’s Bakery on Mayfield, (and don’t skimp on size: live a little and buy the freaking big one), sit among doctors from the nearby University Hospital and students from Case Western Reserve University, chat, sip a macchiato. If you’re not down for Presti’s long lines, check out Corbo’s Bakery and Café up the road. Who would have thought two cannoli could taste so different?

Sweet treats at Corbo’s Bakery
“It’s that your-grandma’s-recipe type of thing,” says Cara Previte, baker at Corbo’s, and of the same family that runs the Vitantonio-Previte Funeral Home just down the street. “That’s what we owe it to.” Combined, Presti's and Corbo's have more than eighty years in business under their belts. Grandma would approve.

If you're looking for more than just dolce, you can’t go wrong on this strip. From the historic giants such as Guarino’s, to Primo Vino (one of the oldest on the hill), to Trattoria Roman Gardens, your buck isn’t going to be misspent.

How to choose? If you’re in the mood for a raviolini di aragosta (lobster ravioli) that’s won ribbons, go to Michelangelo’s, a quaint place on Murray Hill one might find along the side streets of Venice. Head to Valentino’s Pizzeria nearby for a freshly made pie or Mia Bella for gnocchi that’ll make your nonna cry. For a little entertainment, gather up the group and snag a seat at La Dolce Vita for Monday Night Opera, sit back as owner Terry Tarantino spoons rigatoni onto your plate while complimenting your date’s dress.
“Want more?” he’ll ask. Who doesn't?

From Northern Italy to Cleveland

For a truly Tuscan cooked chicken liver or a bistecca Florentina (Florentine-style steak) hand-cut by the owner, make a reservation at Valerio’s Ristorante, a cozy eatery and wine bar that’s been in Little Italy for 20 years. Run by the Naples-born Valerio Iorio and his wife Stella, and their daughter Manuela, Valerio’s is a family trattoria through and through.

Iorio will serve up cannellini beans and cod, some swordfish, or a molto delicioso white-truffle polenta, all made from scratch and tempered by Iorio’s decades of working the top spots around the Northern Italian mecca.

Valerio Iorio and his daughter Manuela of Valerio’s Ristorante

“The Florentine cuisine is a huge influence on me,” says Iorio, a burly Italian with the presence of an opera singer. “I still do a lot things in the Florentine way, in that old style. I use the extra virgin olive oil with the sage and rosemary, just like they do in Tuscany.”

Iorio, like most Little Italy chefs, isn’t one for complacency. He often experiments with new recipes, finding the right produce suppliers (he doesn’t like buying out of season; what good Florentine chef does?), and when the pasta’s no good, making it himself by hand. He just shipped in a machine from Italy for that very reason.

“You know how important pasta is for Italians, huh?” he says before breaking into a belly laugh. “But I say why not? I eat from my place, so of course I want to eat better. Yet, it turns out, I’m the worse critic of my restaurant.”

"Even if you don’t know each other here, it still feels like a community."
To balance and enhance the the culinary smorgasbord, Little Italy boasts one of the most active art communities in Cleveland, from printmakers, to glassmakers, to architects and interior designers. Since the late eighties, Murray Hill Galleries (converted from an old school house) has hosted many an artist and has become a popular stop during the neighborhood's Art Walks in the fairer months.

“It’s really an established gallery by now,” says Tricia Kaman, a Chagrin-born portrait artist who’s had her second-floor studio in the Murray Hill Galleries since 1989. “It really set the template for other places in Cleveland. People are actually surprised, blown away when they come in. They’ll say, ‘Oh my god!’”

Portrait artist Tricia Kaman in her Murry Hill Gllleries studio

Kaman credits her longevity on Murray Hill to one simple reason: “Even if you don’t know each other here, it still feels like a community, especially for artists,” she says. “It’s kind of the fabric of the place.”

For shopping and gifts, stroll into the various stores carrying hand-painted china to T-shirts that suggest “Legalize Marinara” or “Ciao, Bella!” Go get a bottle of San Ruffino from Little Italy Wines, stop and hum to a recording of “Volare!” on the corner. For imported porcelain and pottery, visit La Bella Vita on Murray Hill, crack jokes with owners Barbara or Peter Strom—“Pietro” to confidantes—both well-versed on Northern Italian trends in ceramics and glassware.
Cleveland confidential: La Bella Vita is where to shop for Mom's next birthday gift: try a hand-painted serving platter or crystal wine decanter. Pewter candleholders? Check.
All in the Neighborhood
For one of the best, and only, cigar stores in a five-mile radius, walk into the Mayfield Smoke Shop, sit and puff on a Romeo y Julieta around locals and waitstaff on break from the nearby Mama Santo’s pizzeria. Talk shop with owner Nicole Laurienzo and watch the old-timers puff and play Canasta in the back room (but don’t bother them, they’re busy).
“Hey, the cigar world may be a man’s world,” cracks Laurienzo, who’s run the store since the early nineties. “But someone’s got to sell cigars, don’t they?” 

Nicole Laurienzo owner of Mayfield Smoke Shop
Come late evening, stop by Maxi’s for a solid whiskey and water, then up to the newly open Tavern of Little Italy (the neighborhood’s first gastropub) for a Great Lakes Dortmunder alongside fried spaghetti and meatballs. To round off the night, head up to Valerio’s for a glass of Tuscan merlot and listen to Iorio and his wife speak Italian while local pianists play Debussy or Michael Jackson on the upright near the bar. And if you can play? Iorio doesn’t mind if you sit in. In fact, he encourages it. 
“You come here, and we eat, we talk, have a glass of wine together,” he says, “maybe even play the piano or sing! But, hey, that’s what a restaurant should be? Right?” 
Like they say: all in the neighborhood. 

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.