Russo’s: Fine Creole Italian Cuisine in Peninsula

July 5, 2018

Russo’s: Fine Creole Italian Cuisine in Peninsula

According to general manager Patrick Cunningham, there’s a man who has a standing reservation at Russo’s out in Peninsula in Summit County for every Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. until the day he dies.

This may be an extreme case of FOMO (fear of missing out) on the part of that eager eater, or a cautionary tale to compel you to make that call right now if you’re contemplating a weekend reservation sometime in the next decade.

It might be an homage to the extraordinary customer care. Everyone on the well-trained staff takes a personal interest in your dining experience, not only asking all the right questions, but then actually listening to the answers. That care fosters a cordial community esprit de corps that’s centered around the large central bar that not only houses the bar keepers but also surrounds the very open kitchen.

There’s a sweet, casual clubbiness about the place that infers there may be more than one permanent reservation on the books.  

Or maybe that loyalty is a steadfast appreciation for the rare, perhaps unique, combination of Italian and Creole cuisines that inspires restaurateur-chef David Russo daily at his restaurant.

Russo grew up in Northeast Ohio and learned Italian cooking from his grandmother. He must have been paying attention. The classic Fresh Cavatelli Pomodoro with Meatballs would do his “nonna” proud. All house-made, the toothsome al dente pasta shaped like little hot dog buns nestle in a sauce that captures the essence of fresh tomatoes made fragrant with basil and oregano while the structurally perfect meatballs - light but not too bouncy - add heft and texture.

That same care is lavished on a Russo creation, the aptly named Oysters Voodoo Mojo. The dish distills his almost two-decade training in New Orleans into a take-no-prisoners fantasia on a Cajun theme served on the half shell: “fresh-shucked oysters with fresh shrimp, crab, tasso, bellpepper, onion, garlic and the magical seasoning of the bayou topped with Chihuahua cheese and baked crisp.” OK, the cheese may be a bit of a cultural interloper, but the resulting appetizer proves again that too much is sometimes just about right. Enjoy.

There are some excellent by-the-book items as well. There’s more than enough lovely tender crawfish tails lolling about in the divinely decadent crawfish stock based-sauce in the eponymous Etouffee. Creole Grits and Shrimp struck the perfect balance between the creamy grits and crisp-cooked shrimp doused in cayenne and paprika. Just for fun, Russo adds a whole breaded deep-fried Farm-Raised Quail. It was perhaps a little undercooked, but if you’re feeling brave, the very pink meat under the fine crispy coating was moist and full of flavor.

A Louisiana Soft-Shell Crab may have been delicately delicious, but the taste was overwhelmed by a very heavy Creole meuniere sauce. We’d been looking forward to the accompanying Brabant potatoes, cubed Louisiana fries that were MIA on the delivered plate. An alert to the waitress prompted a visit from the cook, who apologized in person. It had been a misprint on the daily menu; potatoes were not an accompaniment to the crab. But he came back in a few minutes with another apology, and a plate of crisp American fries as consolation. We didn’t have the heart to point out the missing oysters in a subsequent trout entrée later that night.  

Of the house-made desserts, New Orleans Style Bread Pudding with bourbon cream sauce and whipped cream was creamy, crunchy, delightfully boozy and extraordinarily wonderful from the first bite to the last scraping. The Southern Pecan Pie unfortunately did not fare so well. Those who eat with their eyes had to avert early, The surface was broken into jagged pieces and the interior was soupy. The less said about the leaden crust, the better. But the Lemon Strawberry Cake, lovely layers of lemony goodness with a surprisingly light strawberry cream-cheese icing, redeemed the night.

Whatever it is, and most likely it’s some of all of the above, has kept those reservations coming for the last 17 years and will continue to probably do so for at least the next 17. Dave Russo keeps the good times rolling with a genial mien, a steadfast commitment to seasonal freshness and fine ingredients and a whole lot of exurban abbondanza.

Taste Bites for Russo’s

Restaurant: Russo’s

Where: 4895 State Road, Peninsula.

Contact: 330-923-2662

Online: www.russoskitchen.com

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.

Prices: Appetizers, $9.99-$14.99; entrees, $18.99-$38.99; desserts, $7.50.

Reservations: Yes, highly recommended on weekends.

Credit Cards: All major cards.

Cuisine: Creole, Cajun and Italian.

Kid-friendliness: Children can be accommodated, but the vibe is grown-up. Get a sitter.

Bar Service: Vast collection of cocktails, thoughtful selection of international wines at every price point, and a nice collation of beers, draft and otherwise.

Accessibility: Access throughout.

Grade: **

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