Stuffed cabbage is a specialty at Sokolowski's University Inn in Cleveland.
CLEVELAND - There are lots of ways for visitors to immerse themselves in a city - museum visits, walking tours, festivals, or sporting events, to name a few.
But during a recent visit here, my wife and I explored a different side of Cleveland by way of a culinary tour of the city. That's a fancy way of saying we basically ate our way through town, in the process seeing some of its most colorful neighborhoods.
We started our Cavalcade of Calories with breakfast at the nearly century-old West Side Market, whose 100-plus booths offer all manner of fresh meats, produce, seafood, baked goods, and ethnic foods. The Market Cafe features diner-style comfort food with generous portions and skimpy prices. Patrons who need to use the unisex restroom must ask a waitress for the key, which is attached to a giant silver spoon.
A few hours later, it was time for lunch at Sokolowski's University Inn in the city's historic Tremont district. A third-generation, cafeteria-style eatery, it's famous for pierogi, cabbage, and other Polish delights. As we headed through the line, co-owner Bernie Sokolowski, who was behind the counter, noticed an empty spot on my wife's plate.
"Here," he said. "You don't want to miss this!" whereupon he plopped a ham-sized stuffed cabbage roll on her plate. "You'll love it," he said. And he was right.
Next was dessert at Lilly Handmade Chocolates, which makes confections with no oils or extracts, then pairs them with wine and craft beer. Our favorites were That Bacon One, made with smoked bacon and organic maple butter, and Southern Gentleman, with bourbon, buttered pecans, and milk chocolate. Asked if she had a favorite, co-owner Amanda Montague laughed, "Nah, that would be like picking your favorite kid."
For dinner, we chose the Greenhouse Tavern in the city's booming East 4th Street Entertainment District. All of the ingredients used in the upscale menu here are locally produced, and the lamb shank ravioli and walleyed pike quenelles were like nothing we'd ever tasted.
Owner-chef Jonathan Sawyer is a 2010 winner of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chef award, and the Greenhouse made Bon Appetit magazine's 2009 list of the Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America.
The next morning found us in Little Italy, where we dropped in at Presti's Bakery for freshly made cannolis and coffee. Then we walked across the street to another family-owned bakery, Corbo's. We'd been told their cassata cakes were fabulous, and they lived up to their billing.
For lunch, we headed for Cleveland Heights' Coventry neighborhood, once the city's "hippie" haven and still home to an eclectic mix of people and businesses. One of its anchors is Tommy's, a bustling, old-fashioned restaurant whose thick menu is packed with choices for vegetarians and health-conscious eaters as well as dedicated carnivores. Even thicker than its menu are the straw-clogging milkshakes for which the place has become famous.
Returning to Tremont, we had dinner at Lolita, a Mediterranean-style bistro owned and operated by Cleveland native Michael Symon, of the Food Network's Iron Chef. The signature dish here is, believe it or not, mac and cheese, but it's made with tangy goat cheese, heavy cream, chicken, and rosemary. With a side of fried Brussels sprouts, it makes a fine meal.
We topped off the evening with drinks at the mysterious Velvet Tango Room. During daylight hours, it looks like a garage with the steel doors in front pulled down and no sign anywhere. At night the doors open and a single small sign is lit. Once a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the place is now a high-end cocktail lounge where patrons can listen to soft jazz piano while the bartenders carefully create their drinks from scratch.
Though we packed in enough food to feed an army during our brief stay in Cleveland, we know we barely scratched the surface. We're already thinking about our next food foray … and trying not to think about our waistlines.
Lodging: A good bet is the Doubletree Downtown Lakeside, overlooking Lake Erie and within walking distance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other attractions. 216-241-5100.
More info: Positively Cleveland Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-321- 1001 or www.positivelycleveland.com