NAME: IL RIONE
PLACE: Cleveland, OH
DATE: December 12th, 2017
WHAT: New Jersey style pizza
ADDRESS: 1303 W 65th St, Cleveland, OH 44102
CHEF: Brian Moss
WHAT TO EAT: New Jersey style pizza
CLEVELAND MEANS EXPLORING...
When I’m in Cleveland it means a culinary exploration with Waldo. I love hanging with this guy. We approach food the same way, and both have a similar sense of humor. We are constantly researching where to eat next, and what new place is opening soon. One recent bitterly cold winter night we were sitting in the outskirts of Cleveland at Xinji Noodle Bar, our first stop of the evening. Waldo happened to mention a pizzeria that he had recently been cyber stalking while waiting for them to open for business. This sparked a quick web search and we found that they were actually opening that very night. Trying new restaurants is always fun, but as Waldo and I are old pizza chefs, it is a food near and dear to our hearts. A new pizza joint is always going to be at the top of our list. Needless to say, we headed over to the Gordon Square district of Cleveland, known as their Italian section, and home to small restaurants and grocery stores. We were there to check out a new pizzeria called ll Rione.
NEW JERSEY STYLE PIZZA?
The Il Rione website touted itself as a New Jersey style pizzeria. In my opinion, New Jersey pizzas are similar to New York style, they just don’t need to be a huge slice that has folding capabilities. With that comparison made, they’re both characterized by a thin crust, a pronounced edge, tomato sauce, basic toppings, and cheese combinations. New Jersey style pizza is ultimately nothing fancy but it embodies the great pizza that everyone thinks of when drinking a beer with family and friends. Partners Brian Holleran and Brian Moss purchased a 100 year old commercial brick building that had seen better days as a bar, a speakeasy, and even a pool hall. They spent months pouring sweat equity into it, focusing on preserving as much character of the old structure as possible while still making it clean, functionable, and inviting. The end result is a charming setting with walls of exposed brick, peeled back plaster, old wooden framed windows, hardwood floors, exposed rafters, and industrial venting. As you walk in they have a modest bar with wooden stools, a few small tables, and an open kitchen concept.
THE LITTLE RESTAURANT THAT COULD:
As we walked into Il Rione it was pumping at near full capacity. Despite that we were immediately greeted by Brian Holleran, one of the two Brian owners. It is not a huge restaurant, maybe ten tables total, but it’s late on a weeknight and they are still full. This is a really a good sign. Brian takes a moment to inform us that this is actually their first night open and that a table shouldn’t be a very long wait. He proudly confides to us that they tried to open quietly, but the word must have gotten out, and they only have two doughballs left that he will save for us. One of the rarest things to experience is a restaurant on their opening night, especially by chance, so this was a real treat. Opening night can be exciting, magical, and disastrous all at once. There are some things that you can never plan for until they happen in real time, and there are always things to tweak and make better. To be a guest on that sacred night, to be one of the first to experience their craft, is a treat that was not lost on Waldo nor myself.
After talking with Brian Holleran, the front of the house portion of the duo, he told me they had a vision to bring the pizza that they grew up with in New Jersey and New York to Cleveland. To them it was about the marriage of the crust and sauce, not crazy wacky toppings, but simple great pizza with beer and wine. He told us that the menu is basic, just pizza and drinks. As Brian explained it, “Pizza is what we’re about, it’s more important to get the this right before we expand the menu”.
So, let’s talk about the pizza. This is coming from two guys with 50+ years of pizza between us, so bear with me. The dough was aged somewhere between 18 and 24 hours prior to baking, providing a nice, light fermentation flavor to it. The crust was thin with a nice pronounced edge, an edge characteristic of good yeast activity. By my standards, this was a solid crust for a long-time pizzeria, no less on day one. The sauce was a balanced sweet and savory tomato puree-base that drove a lot of the flavor, and was a great foundation to build even more flavor on. As for the cheese, they used fresh mozzarella. This is a touch that shouldn’t be overlooked as it screams quality. Last, but not least, the toppings. They were old school New Jersey pizza toppings. They were high quality cured meats and sausage, but don’t expect to find crazy here. Overall this was really good pizza, one I would rate very high, and more importantly worthy of repeat visits. It was one of among the best I’ve had in Cleveland.
THINGS TO EXPECT FROM IL RIONE:
In the past, some years ago, I was on the working end of the opening nights of new restaurants. I know how hard these can be, but that first night is so telling of what the restaurant can do, and what it can be. I can tell you that Il Rione has a great future making pizzas for Cleveland. On that last note from the Pig, remember this Cleveland, you are lucky to have a new neighborhood pizzeria like Il Rione.
WHO IS THE PIG?
The Pig is formally trained in the culinary arts, a graduate of the C.I.A., worked in the food industry for over 40 years and currently travels the country as a research chef searching food trucks, street vendors, little restaurants and hole in the walls, seeking out the best this country has to offer. For more great articles, culinary travel guides, and tips on travel and cooking follow us to our website. .