This is exactly what I wanted," said my coworker Lisa as she forked through butternut-squash tortelloni. At an outside table at SpoonFed, she mused on missing the brisk Cleveland fall, when squash is among the season's pickings at farmers' markets. She had ordered a dish that reminded her of home. "Taste this!" she said, dabbing a bite in a maple-tinged reduction that drizzled the plate. The mash was seasoned with thyme and butter, a savory allusion to pumpkin pie.
Lisa's connection to the dish is chef Glen Manfra's intention with SpoonFed. His menu has been assembled to rouse nostalgia. The problem is, comfort food is overplayed. It's shopping to Cee Lo Green at the grocery store. Comfort food has achieved complacency.
But what rescues a trite concept are beautiful ingredients and skillful technique, evidence of Manfra's decades as an executive chef. Having opened Vic & Angelo's in 2009, with a hand in the Office a year later, he has shaped the Atlantic Avenue scene after having been seasoned as a chef at New York's Bice for years.
SpoonFed is the current iteration of the space that formerly housed the Pop Up, chef Manfra's rustic Italian spot with wood-fired pizzas and pop-art décor. After a summer makeover, a warmer space debuted, a fishbowl for people-watching. The two-level space is attractive enough, with its lean steel rail and a wide bar with nubby orange lounge chairs. A sunny interior is delivered by chandeliers shaped like cheerleaders' megaphones.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, SpoonFed and its sprawling menu suggest an animated table at Manfra's house, with lots of people to please, such as Uncle Veo, who gets a salad named after him. Props to Aunt Renee for her creamed spinach. Nonna is revered for her meatballs.
The menu is epic: nine pizzas, 15 pastas, 17 entrées, starters, the raw bar, salads, and sides. I ordered the mussels, a nod to my own mother. Every time we go out, she orders them. They remind me of a mother-daughter trip to Brugge, when we pub-crawled around town, ordering a vat of mussels at every stop to pair with fruity Lambics (speaking of trite). The mussels at SpoonFed arrived in a bowl, not a vat: fat, pink mollusks in a broth of garlic, chili, and wine. "These look better than any I've ever seen here," Lisa said, referring to South Florida. We tore through the starter, voraciously dipping toasts and the warm bread with garlic butter that's served before every meal.
Manfra cooks dozens of delicacies he ate growing up in New York in a family that's half Jewish, half Italian. "That matzoh brei is what I remember from Brighton Beach as a kid," he said of the breakfast riff in which crackers are softened with milk, combined with eggs, fried in butter, and formed into a cake dolloped with jam or apple sauce. He concedes the dish isn't spot-on from the version in his memory. "It's a dish you grow up making over and over again with your family," he said.
Cooks in his family were Italian, not Jewish. So he has some reticence about cooking Jewish dishes, while displaying an obvious strength in Sicilian crowd pleasers. "Meatballs and red sauce are how I've made my money," he said. Nonna's meatballs are pork, ground beef, and very little veal, "since there wouldn't be much left by the week's end." And here I thought the skimp is because it's the priciest of meats.
The meatballs arrive during happy hour as sliders, ladeled with San Romano tomato sauce and garnished with basil leaves. They're almost pillowy from the bread crumbs and milk binder. For a more authentic dish, go for the meatballs from the dinner menu with the rich Sicilian braciola sauce.
More familial for me is the wedding soup, a reference to the marriage of meats and greens. During a stint in which my family lived in an Italian neighborhood in Ohio, the soup seeded every menu. I was enchanted by tiny meatballs, like savory Lucky Charms, nestled amid rice and cut with bitter greens in a sumptuous broth. Enriched with pancetta, a variety of greens, and grated Parmesan, Mantra's rendition does not disappoint.
For the mains, we opted for pizza, though Lisa and I had our own ideas about what pizza should be. Lisa wanted a pizza layered with seasonal vegetables, on which the cheese was barely there, adhering to the farmers' market theme of the evening. I wanted charred but chewy crust with blisters created from searing heat, a nod to Neapolitan-New York hybrid style. I got my crust, but we were both disheartened. Where were the caramelized onions, and why so few mushrooms? To counteract the blanket of cheese, acid needed to brighten things up, or at least distract from a fat-saddled slice.
Despite the hackneyed concept, SpoonFed lures a coterie of regulars for the same reason people still listen to Sinatra: They'll embrace an idealized past when the product is good. Considering Atlantic Avenue has so much competition, it will be interesting to see whether the flock remains at SpoonFed. "I appreciate your coming in so often, but you're making me nervous," Manfra bosses the regulars, like an Italian mother. "Go somewhere else and report back to me. We've got 90 other restaurants on this street."