The second-to-last time I ate in Akron, I rode my bicycle there for ice cream. First, I took my passbook into the Bank of Akron to withdraw a dollar, to pay for my cone. The last time I ate there was a few weeks ago. When I parked facing the gazebo in the tidy park at the center of town, I thought that with a steady snowfall, from the right angle, it could have been mistaken for Bedford Falls from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
My return was strictly for professional reasons, to investigate reports of an Italian restaurant shoehorned into the unused space behind a sub shop. Before the night was out I was especially glad for my dining companions, whose utter lack of small-town sentiment reassured me it wasn’t just channeling George Bailey to say: Akron has a wonderful little Italian restaurant.
Before I tell you about the food, I should tell you about the people.
Laurie Bordonaro-Mozee owns Guy’s Subs, a fixture in downtown Akron since her father opened it in 1963. She was looking for a better use for the back room. Her cousin Jerry Clementi, one of the original partners in Trattoria Aroma, was looking for a place of his own. Their needs met at 6 Clinton St., where Cipollina opened a year ago.
Customers walk down a hallway past the sub shop entrance to reach the restaurant’s door. It’s a quiet room, with about 40 seats, simply decorated with a mural drawn from Roman mythology and black and white photographs from the wedding of Bordonaro-Mozee’s parents. The tables have paper over white tablecloths and real flowers.
Clementi offers a menu that seems stripped down, by Buffalo standards. It fits on one page. Nothing fried, not even the ubiquitous calamari. Little seafood. The wine list, mostly Italian, fits on one page as well.
It didn’t seem to matter, though. Cipollina shows that when it comes to menus, it’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it.
Two kinds of housemade bread arrived with butter. The classic crusty Italian was excellent. Pizza bread topped with tomato and grated cheese was tasty but slightly doughy, undercooked.
I am predisposed to like burrata ($9) in any setting, because it is cheese stuffed with cheese, ricotta inside a mozzarella shell. This one was filled with housemade ricotta that tasted like fresh milk, instead of the flat graininess of factory ricotta. It was topped with toasty pistachio pesto, tangy tomato gastrique and Parmesan shavings, on arugula. It was stiffer than the oozingly delicate versions I’ve enjoyed, but well above average.
A pair of chicken meatballs ($9) arrived in a bowl of sweet Marsala cream. The meat was good, but the indulgent sauce struck a chord, and when our server tried to take it we asked for more bread instead.
A beet salad ($10) ordered with goat cheese on the side showed up loaded, but our server noticed and offered a replacement before we had a chance to complain. The second pleased with sliced red and golden beets, simply dressed and tarted up with shatteringly crunchy glazed walnuts. (And goat cheese on the side.)
Tomato and red onion in the Caesar salad ($9) seemed more appropriate for the sub shop next door, but there also was shaved Parmesan, and the puffy brioche croutons were restaurant quality.
Gnocchi ($11.95) with the springy quality of fresh pasta were served tossed in a jumble of creamy sautéed mushrooms – shiitake, white, cremini, oyster and enough porcini to pack woodsy musk without any truffle oil. They were not wild mushrooms, however. (Chefs, please stop using that term on menus to signal more-than-white-button varieties. It’s 2016, we’ve heard of shiitakes.)
Clementi likes to offer polenta in the winter, and by chance we had it under three entrees – braciole ($17), beef short ribs ($17) and seafood brodetto ($18).
The braciole, pork cutlet wrapped around hardboiled egg and salami, was fall-apart tender. The beef ribs were firmer, but still fork-tender, and arrived in a tomato sauce beefed up with short rib juices. The seafood dish carried clams, calamari and shrimp, properly cooked, with an acceptable hint of fishiness. The broth was tangy with lemon. For all three, we made sure to pack whatever was left.
Desserts are housemade, and worth saving room to eat. Retta’s cheesecake ($6), pitched as “best you’ve ever had,” didn’t quite make it, but its creamy lightness made it a top contender. Gianduia torte ($6) was a slab of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate hazelnut cream. Cassatina cake ($6) was a cassata cupcake filled with cannoli ricotta and topped with whipped cream. Nutella gelato ($6) was the only disappointment, on technical grounds, for graininess.
This place is not only strong in appetizers, entrees and dessert – which is rare enough – but nothing on the menu hits $20. It’s big-city trattoria Italian at Akron prices. Join friends to drink wine and share a burrata in a room where you never have to raise your voice to be heard, even when you debate dessert. You too could step out thinking, What a wonderful life.
Cipollina - 8 plates (out of 10)
Big-city Italian at Akron prices brings diners back to sub shop annex.
WHERE: 6 Clinton St., Akron, 542-5440
HOURS: 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters, $3-$13; entrees, $10-$18.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.