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Road trip report: Cleveland

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It's interesting that while Chicago Bull Joakim Noah and I were in Cleveland, Ohio at the same time this past weekend, we had somewhat different experiences there and were left with contrasting opinions of the city and its scene. (I was there to watch my White Sox and pick up some Bertman's Ball Park Mustard. In doing so, I discovered that Cleveland is quite the diamond in the rough for foodies -- the Food Network is always finding a new brunch spot, sandwich shop or organic restaurant tell the world about.)

While I did not arrive via private jet and did not have buckets of disposable income at my disposal like other Chicagoans who spent the weekend in Cleveland, I can report that if you expend a small amount of effort -- working the computer searches, talking to natives, asking for directions from hotel staff -- you can have a decent time there, as you can just about anywhere. I don't know what Joakim's requirements are for a fun weekend in a city that's not your hometown (apparently winning an important basketball game isn't among them), but for me, a nice coffee house, a good Italian restaurant, a neat neighborhood to walk around in and a friendly brunch spot make any place welcoming and worth visiting.

The starting point was Erie Island Coffee, a spot on a narrow, almost hidden block downtown that is also home to the House of Blues, and a few restaurants and bars. It's a smallish, though clean, friendly and bright cafe, with locally produced art on the walls, free Wi-fi (great news for those whose hotels charge $15 and up for the privilege of being able to access your e-mail from the room you're paying $150, $200 or more a night for), tasty pastries, a few breakfast sandwiches and salads and panini. You can flip through magazines or local papers there, or make inquiries about area restaurants.

From there you prepare yourself for a treat by heading to Cleveland's Little Italy, a vibrant area, teeming with life on its streets and an abundance of restaurants to choose from. If you don't have a reservation, you can pick your dining spot the old fashioned way, by just walking around and stopping in the place that seems most to your liking from the crowd, the decor, and in some instances, the menu in the window. Such was how we found La Dolce Vita, and the result was sweet indeed. This laidback but impressive and upscale spot takes up the space of three storefronts, and on the Saturday night we were there the crowd ranged from college-aged to senior citizens with their children, to middle-aged folks dressed up for a fancy dinner, and there were a few hipsters in skinny jeans hanging out at the bar to keep things real. The food and experience overall, though, was unreal. From the professional, attentive yet friendly and unaffected service to the appetizers through dessert, nearly everything was perfect and each dish inspired wide-eyed groans of ecstasy at the table. Highlights included the generously sized veal meatballs, the Mediterraneo pizza with eggplant, zucchini, roasted red peppers and mozzarella, the chicken wrapped in prosciutto atop a bed of gorgonzola risotto, the tiramisu and a generously poured chianti. All this while the movie that La Dolce Vita takes its name from was playing on one of the restaurant's walls.

And what better way to let the meal settle than to take in the neighborhood with a leisurely walk around the block, perhaps stopping in the neighborhood smoke shop for a cigar or some cigarettes?

For brunch (or lunch or dinner), Grumpy's, in Cleveland's Tremont area, will leave you anything but. An 80-seat spot with walls filled with photos courtesy of the Cleveland Photographic Society and a menu that is on the spicy side, Grumpy's is a lively place even on weekend mornings but the overall vibe was one that is friendly and relaxed and the food, along the same lines, was comforting with a bit of spice. Highlights here were the jambalaya omelette -- chicken, ham, andouille sausage, shrimp and rice in creole sauce and cheese, the homemade corned beef hash, the biscuits and sausage gravy and the cajun home fries that come with m any of the brunch items. The place is a little kitschy, with its mismatched coffee cups and all, but the food was a hit, which is something that our White Sox (not to mention those Bulls) provided so little of that weekend.

Just goes to prove that if you spend less time bitching about the dearth of fun places to hang out at in a different city, and look around, you just might find someplace new and have some good memories when you look back on your trip.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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