Iacofano’s has been around almost long enough to be considered a Mt. Pleasant institution. But it’s a restless institution, one that seems to reinvent itself every few years. It started out as a deli, then expanded to an Italian bar and grill format, keeping its slate of sandwiches and pizza but adding hearty Italian-American classics like lasagna and ravioli. Earlier this year, owner John Iacofano closed the doors briefly and retooled once more, reopening as an Italian bistro.
And that means no more lunch service, just dinner. The menu has been streamlined to a single page; gone are the pizzas and the subs and the Philly cheesesteak. A few of the old Italian-via-Cleveland entrées remain — the “old school” lasagna, the chicken parm — but there are a lot of newfangled plates now that no one from Goodfellas would even be able to pronounce.
The interior has been given a bistro makeover. Banquette seating has replaced the long booths that once flanked the bar, and the formerly golden yellow walls are now painted a deep, rich red.
You would be forgiven if your “trendy” radar just started beeping. Yes, Iacofano’s now boasts a “farm-to-table menu that varies with the seasons.” Local purveyors like Thackeray Farms and Ambrose Farms are highlighted, “artisanal cured meats” grace the appetizer selection, and there’s even a seasonal cocktail made with Boone Hall strawberries. Of course, these days, that’s almost as notable as a restaurant’s having chairs and forks.
The mozzarella on the appetizer menu used to be lightly breaded and fried and served with little bowls of sauce to dunk it in. Now it’s hand-pulled and accompanied by roasted tomatoes and pesto and a couple slices of grilled focaccia ($8). The mozzarella itself is good if unremarkable. Sliced into little gnocchi-sized bits, its cool, mild flavor contrasts nicely with the sharp bite of the pesto and the sweetness of the roasted tomatoes.
The veal and ricotta meatballs ($7) are a welcome throwback to the old menu. They’re slightly spicy with a great meaty yet smooth texture. The sauce that comes with them is now called “tomato sugo,” but it’s really just a good old-fashioned red sauce that’s most notable for what’s not in it — no meat, no big chunks of onion or peppers or even discernible bits, for that matter — just a sweet and flavorful sauce.
That sauce and the meatballs can be had as an entrée with the linguini and meatballs ($16), and the sugo also serves duty on the chicken parmesan ($16) and one of my old favorites, the lasagna ($17).
Then there are the new, more ambitious plates. I’m on record as being suspicious of the strip-mall bistro and the clichéd fancy fare you typically find there, the endless parade of bone-in pork chops and braised short ribs that are long on ambition and short on flavor. I hate that sinking feeling you get when you encounter the same menu you’ve seen at a hundred other places and can’t find a single thing to pique your interest.
That, fortunately, turns out not to be the case at Iacofano’s, where even the most pedestrian-seeming of the dozen entrées are enlivened with a twist that makes you pause. The seafood risotto ($23), for instance, boasts house-smoked bacon and a sweet corn tarragon broth, while the grilled pork chop ($22) is made tempting by the braised greens and Madeira wine jus.
And for the dishes I tried, the execution followed through on the promise of the menu’s prose. Ricotta ravioli ($15) are tucked away in a savory, creamy sauce under a generous drift of shaved parmesan. The pasta has a pleasing toothsome texture, and there’s a deftness to the spices and a lot of earthy flavors lurking amid the green peas and roasted mushrooms.
The real winner is the crispy pork belly plate ($20), which would be remarkable even if there wasn’t any pork belly on it. It’s a huge dish, with two big belly slabs piled atop a layer of farro and roasted veggies. Though the menu lists carrots and palmetto sweet onions, mine came with roasted mushrooms and braised greens instead, but they worked just fine. The pork belly has a thick brown sear on the outside and a lot of meat on it, making it more like a tender roast than a melting slab of bacon, and it anchors a well-executed plate. I scarfed down almost every kernel of farro before I even put a dent into the pork. Passing up pork belly for farro sounds inconceivable, but the thin red sauce in the bottom of the bowl merges into the chewy grains and makes for one delicious bite after another. And if that’s not enough, there’s also plum mostarda — quartered plums marinated in a tangy syrup with the kick of whole mustard seeds. The plums are sweet, tangy, and slightly spicy, adding a perfect accent to the rest of the plate.
In other words, this Iacofano guy can cook, and it’s nice to see him have a chance to showcase his skills beyond the tried-and-true genre of red-sauce Italian. He’s also hired Bryan Lindsay as his chef de cuisine to help execute this new menu.
Not everything clicks in the new bistro format, though. There’s just a little too much contradiction. Each table now has a white tablecloth and a bottle of wine placed in the middle (the house’s privately labeled Iacofano’s Merlot) waits invitingly when you enter. But the water arrives in a bar-style pint glass with a plastic straw shoved in it and raucous rock plays quite loudly from the stereo, both ghosts of the old bar-and-grill format that aren’t quite yet exorcized.
That bottle of wine looks elegant when you sit down, but it soon proves troublesome. Under the white cloth, the table has a slightly-squishy padded surface, which makes the bottle rock precariously with the slightest nudge. We almost knocked the damn thing over five times before the waiter mercifully took it away. There were some service hitches, too, the most serious being three entrées’ arriving one at a time, with a solid five-minute lag between the second and third. It’s the kind of thing you forgive in a neighborhood bar and grill, but in a bistro with prices edging up over the $20 mark, you expect better.
What I really miss most are the pictures. Previously, the golden walls were hung higgledy-piggledy with framed photographs, many of them old family shots of people in wedding gowns and early 20th-century formal wear. There were framed posters with scenes from John Iacofano’s native Cleveland, too. There was something homey and personal about those touches, something that seems lost with the new red walls and their sophisticated sparseness.
But decor and service are addressable things. If the food’s no good, then there’s not much one can do to adjust. All in all, with its blend of solid old-school Italian-American cuisine and some impressive newfangled dishes, Iacofano’s latest incarnation is well worth checking out.