It's a familiar tale: Boy grows up, makes good, travels the world, tastes life in the big city, starts a family and realizes that his hometown wasn't such a bad place after all. In this case, that boy turns out to be Dante Boccuzzi, who rose through the ranks at Charlie Palmer's Aureole, spent several stints in Europe and the Far East working in top-flight restaurants, stopped off in San Francisco to put Silks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the map, then ultimately landed back at Aureole six years ago as executive chef, where he scored a rare Michelin star in the city's first Red Guide. Last year the 36-year-old pulled up stakes and moved his wife and three kids (with another on the way this fall) back to his hometown, Cleveland, to fulfill a dream of opening his own place. Dante opened last October at the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 10 minutes south of the city.
Let's get the most obvious, cliché question out of the way: Why, after living in all these fabulous places, would you settle in the Midwest?
It was a lot of things — the opportunity to own my own place, better cost of living, family nearby. There was no way I would live in Manhattan — it was an hour and 15-minute commute. Now I can go home during the day, I play golf in the afternoon — it's 15 minutes away. I'm more involved with the family.
I'll bet your wife is happy about that. Do you help around the house?
When I'm home, I cook. So that means breakfast, and on Sunday I'll cook all three meals.
I see you're nicely stocked up on fruits and veggies. I take it your kids aren't fussy eaters.
My wife's Italian, so our meals are very Italian-driven, very simple, generally a lot of pasta and we try to eat a lot of fish, always salads and fresh fruit. For lunch we might have a frittata using what's left over. This time of year, we grill more. We have a good size garden, and we use a lot from that. I'm big on everyone sitting down and eating together, and the kids need to try everything.
You're known as a stickler for order in your restaurant. Are you the same way at home?
Things need to be where they are supposed to be, just like mise en place. I just think it makes life easier if the cookbooks are arranged in sections or the CDs are in alphabetical order.
Speaking of CDs, you look very comfortable with that guitar. Where does music fit into your life?
I've always enjoyed music. If I had had a breakthrough I guess I would have gone into the music business (Note: Boccuzzi plays guitar and drums, has issued two CDs of blues and rock tunes and was part of a chef's band in San Francisco). I'm building a studio in the garage. I'm also working on something with Steve Schimoler (of Cleveland's Crop Bistro); we want to push the idea that Cleveland rocks, but so do Cleveland chefs.
Slipping a guitar pick into the guest check folder is a nice little signature.
I'm trying to make the restaurant more music-oriented. The bread and one of the sushi items (the Zeppelin, as in Led) are served on dishes made from old vinyl LPs, too. We're working on some ice cream dishes that we plan to sell.
Rocky road on classic rock. Sweet.