Things to Do in Cleveland, OH: Little Italy

I spent approximately half of my high school years in Cleveland, OH. Unfortunately, because I was a teenager and, stereotypically, only interested in boys, music and shopping, I really missed out on all the best bits. Little Italy was one of those places that I was vaguely aware of but, at the time, not the least bit interested in. These days, I'm fascinated by diverse little neighborhoods that add such flavor to the cities they inhabit, so when my mom planned a Red Hat bus tour to this historic area, I had to tag along.

Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood, also referred to as "Murry Hill" after the street that runs along its center, was established in 1885. By 1911, 92% of the residents had been born in Italy. Today, it's a trendy and artistic little area that is feeling the strain of gentrification, and as is so often the case in these cultural hotspots, the native ethnic population is dwindling and the art student population is rising. However, it still retains its Italian charm: the cobbled streets, young boys toting baskets of fresh baked Italian bread from the bakeries to the restaurants, old men sitting and chatting by the storefronts, eager to flirt with the passing ladies, and shops that open lazily at 1pm on a summer Saturday (to our dismay, as we were there early). I loved it, and if I lived in Cleveland, it's most likely the neighbohood that I (a little past art student but not so far past) would want to live in.

Our highlights:

Presti's Bakery, originally opened in 1903. The bakery was relocated to the current location in 1999, and while it has a more modern feel, it's still has atmosphere aplenty. They have good coffee, fresh bread, a wide selection of pastries, and a large variety of savory items. I also sampled their gelato before we left, and it was very good (although I have to say that I think the homemade gelato at Ventrella's Cafe here in Chicago is still the best I've ever had.)

Trattoria on the Hill
, where we had lunch, is only 20 years old but still seems to be a local favorite. They had great bread, supplied by Presti's, and the pasta was very good. Everyone loved the food (although the service was a little chaotic). You can buy a jar of their tomato basil sauce to take home with you.

Algebra Tea House: A little off the beaten path, and a little out of place, this tea house made me feel like I had returned to the apartment that I shared, a decade ago, with my friend Kym. She was (and still is) a wonderful artist who turned our living quarters, originally a run down office space directly above the notorious Tuman's, Chicago's Alcohol Abuse Center of old, into a bohemian work of art that also functioned as a fabulous party pad. They have a variety of tea, a selection of Middle Eastern coffee, old boards games, couches, shelves of dusty pottery and free wi-fi. I bought some hand ground Turkish coffee along with a cute polka dot Turkish coffee pot, and received verbal preparation instructions and a free cup along with it.

Little Italy Wines: A cute little wine shop that was so crowded when we visited that I decided to forego trying to search out a bottle to try, but they have a wide variety of wine available as well as a selection of good beer. We did, however, purchase the Bellavitano cheese that they sell, and it was quite tasty! Although Bellavitano is made in Wisconsin, it's made in the Piave style. Apparently Little Italy Wines is the only store in the area that carries it, and if you're curious you can order it from their site.

Also, although it isn't in Little Italy, I have to mention Alesci's as well. This Italian deli located in South Euclid, OH (right around the corner from where I lived) carries all kinds of Italian specialty foods, including Alesci's own sauce and meatball mix, and some of the best Italian bread I've ever had.

There were a lot of other places that we didn't get to explore, so I hope to be able to get back there some time (preferably in the late afternoon—I think I need to move to Europe!) and explore what we missed.

More pictures of our trip are available on Flickr.

Some other interesting facts about Little Italy, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • The first pasta machine was invented in Cleveland's Little Italy by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Vitantonio, who received a United States patent for the product in 1906.
  • Guarino's was the first Italian restaurant in Cleveland, and arguably the first Italian restaurant in the state of Ohio. It is located just past Murray Hill on Mayfield Road.
  • Chef Boyardee's cooking skill became notable when he opened his first restaurant called "Il Giardino d'Italia" in the Little Italy section of Cleveland in the 1940s.
  • Cleveland's Little Italy was home to the largest Mafia organization between New York and Chicago, comprised of family names like Porrello and Lonardo. The organization was the seat of power for families that operated in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Toledo, Detroit, and Akron.