getting back to basics: part 3

The customers at Carrie Cerino’s have literally been dining there for years and years. If a customer ordered the chicken marsala in 1972, they expect the exact same taste and dish in 1987, 1994 and 2007 – and that is exactly what they would get. These dedicated elderly customers have been the backbone per se of the restaurant, and it is the fear of losing these dedicated patrons if the menu or atmosphere should have drastic changes.

Dominic Cerino’s goal – his obsession – is to cook the recipes with the same ingredients that Carrie’s mother cooked with back in Norcia and ingredients that Carrie cooked with as a young mother cooking for her family in Cleveland. Back in Norcia, and even here in Cleveland, the family raised or grew much of the food they cooked and ate. When Carrie would make chicken for the family that night she didn’t go to the grocery store to buy it, she went out her back door and grabbed the slowest chicken in the back yard – slow food. Back in the 1930’s and in Italy they didn’t call this a free range USDA organic chicken, they just called it chicken. “Organic to Italians is not a new concept, that’s just how you do it,” said Dominic.

All of Carrie’s recipes are based on her roots and this overall philosophy, but when she opened in 1963, she couldn’t cook for larger groups exactly this way. From a business standpoint, it was easier and made more sense to use the food that was commercially available. Since she couldn’t exactly raise her own chickens for the restaurant, she adopted her recipes to a more realistic approach.

“We’re not changing, we’re trying to go back to how she (Carrie) did it in her home for her family before she commercialized her recipes,” said Dominic. “It takes more handling and time and is more expensive, but that is how she did it and that is what I want to do here. Slow food is lost in this country. There is a whole generation that doesn’t know what food is about and where it is from. People actually think that scampi from the Olive Garden sets the standard for quality Italian food.”

It’s the expense of running such a large building in an isolated location that has Dominic concerned. He knows his customers and the market he is in and fears these new items, which cost slightly more, will not be accepted. So he finds himself telling two stories, catering to two customers, and running a ship that’s excessively big. “We’re trying to hang on to the old, but embrace the new, which is really old and new again,” he said laughingly and acknowledging that he has multiple messages going on.

Upon hearing his concerns/struggles and wonderful stories about his grandma and the history behind the dishes, my husband and I couldn’t help but look at his challenge and see the potential – the really great opportunity in front of him, not so much the challenge. We tried to make him see that the story of his grandma cooking prior to opening the restaurants – growing and raising your own ingredients – is something the old-timers would probably appreciate and relate to. It’s a great story, and if told the right way, could win a lot of people over. Plus, once you try the food prepared the intended way, you really don’t need much more convincing.

While we were discussing the current situation and potential opportunities, Dominic related it to a section in Alan Greenspan’s new book. In the book, Greenspan uses the term “creative destruction” a lot and how you take great industries and have to destroy them to make new ones such the telegraph destroying the Pony Express and then it being destroyed by AT&T and phones; a market economy will incessantly revitalize itself from within by scrapping the old and failing businesses and then reallocating resources to newer more productive ones. As he was reading that section, he felt that is what they are trying to avoid with the restaurant, but he understands that in order to survive they have to do something radically different to attract and maintain new customers. “It’s a hell of a concept and one hell of a challenge,” he said.

Currently, you’ll find newer (yet really older) foods from his roots in Norcia on the menu that you won’t find anywhere else in Cleveland. Items like lentils and Pestelli risotto – very coarse, earthy and rustic foods.

Ideally, Dominic would love to take a three-year sabbatical and live in Norcia, come back and open a 135-seat restaurant. Realistically, he settled for a trip to Terra Madre and Norcia in 2006 with Michael Symon and Doug Katz. There, he spent time cooking with relatives in their kitchen and learning how they do it. He was blown away and has been on a mission ever since.

“That trip made it authentic, made it real,” Dominic said. “It was validation for what I was doing. I just have to keep plugging away. It’s not the easiest thing… I mean, do you know how hard it is to get people to eat lentils? My job is to educate them and I hope they will let me.”

I’ve had the lentils. It shouldn’t be that hard to get people to eat them. More on the food of his roots in the final post.

So, we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for Carrie Cerino’s Ristorante and how much longer Dominic can put up with the excessive space and multiple messages. I have a feeling not much longer… In the meantime, we’ll have to settle searching through the menu for the more foodie and authentic dishes of Norcia hidden between the veal parm and chicken piccata.

Final thoughts on consistency
Dominic spoke at length about how important consistency is to his place, to restaurants in general and the role it plays in order to make it in this business. He said that is one reason why chains are so successful and why many independents fail.

“Chains understand the market and are consistent,” he said. “Consistency is key. That’s why you can expect the exact same dish and taste every single time, regardless of which decade you ate here. This is one of the main problems with independents – they just aren’t consistent. Someone can have a great meal on one visit, then leave disappointed on the next. Chains have nailed it, but lose authenticity.”

When asked what independent has authenticity and consistency in Cleveland, he said Baricelli and Lola/Lolita.

Paul Minnillo, or Pauly as Dominic calls him, is very authentic he says. “He takes the time and that’s huge. Plus he is able to properly train people.”

When talking about Michael Symon, Dominic convincingly said he makes his own ketchup and mayo. “Can you believe it – that’s all him,” he said. “I mean, who does that? Who makes their own condiments? I have a great deal of admiration for him, he’s the man.”

Final random thought

We were talking about Babbo, how we are both huge Mario fans (apparently the only person in the Batali clan Dominic has yet to meet) and why we are craving our next visit to Babbo.

“The best plate of food I have ever had in my entire life is from Babbo,” he shared. “It was like nirvana. I couldn’t believe the flavors – it was better than sex.” The dish in question was the beef cheek ravioli with squab liver sauce and a glass of Barolo – and he acknowledged that that comment might get him in trouble with his wife, but says it really is that good.

Jamie and I are heading to NYC at the end of the month and of course Babbo is on the list. I’m curious to try this dish and see for myself if it is in fact better than sex.


  1. Anonymous
    Posted October 3, 2007 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I’m a foodie too, but food better than sex??? I gotta think that if someone feels food is better than sex, then they aren’t doing the sex part right ;-)

  2. michelle v
    Posted October 3, 2007 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t think he literally meant that, but rather was just trying to convey just how good that meal was.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 3, 2007 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Ummm….. I really wasn’t kidding, at 50 I may be setting new priorities! That dish was that good, and don’t forget there was a bottle of Barolo involved also.

  4. Michael Walsh
    Posted October 3, 2007 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    consistency is a wierd thing. I think that local chefs build a trust with their customer base that they will be consistantly good, or consistacntly italian, or consistantly mediocre. This idea of consistancy within a dish is a very corperate concept.

    We don’t go to lolita because the menu has the same thing on it as long ago, we go because we consistantly get good food there, weather it has changed from the past or not. This is much more important then the allernate which is…..

    we go to McDonalds because we get the same Big Mac at every restaurant in every state, in every city across the world… this is not trust with a chef, this is conistency!

    I’ve been to dominics kitchen and his restaurant, he is a great chef, his customer base should trust him when he makes the dicision to change. it’s a tough situation. but dominic has done a great job at whatever he does, change or not. cheers.

  5. michelle v
    Posted October 4, 2007 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Not to speak for Dominic, but I think he was he meant was that regardless of when you visit a restaurant, you expect it to be consistently good. If you have scallops at Lola one week, and come back the next, you expect that dish to be just as good. Not necessarily serve the same meal over several decades. He knows, as most people do, that places like Lola and Parallax often change the menu. But the food should always be consistently good and he feels that not all the independents are.

    As much as I love the independents, there have been times when I have gone to some of my favorite places and the meal wasn’t spot on.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted October 4, 2007 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Michelle and thanks Mike for your kind comments. I suppose both understandings apply. We have menu items that have been on the menu since 1963! Okay, now that you have picked yourself up off the floor, it is true. Items such as our Veal Parm, Veal La Tosca and the ultimate one….Mama’s white spaghetti, the Mac & Cheese of Norcia are still top sellers. So, yea, I have to keep those items on, they are damn good sellers but, I have to really work at keeping them consistent and that is no easy task. The best example is the La Tosca. It is basically an egg and parm cheese batter for the veal, but the commercial eggs have so changed over the last 50 years that the recipe has to be adjusted for the higher water content in today’s eggs. Today’s batter requires 20% more cheese then it did 30 years ago, unless I use blue eggs, then I can use the original recipe and it comes out perfect. So, consistency is an issue from week to week and from decade to decade.