Clevelanders on the southwest side of town are guilty: They've been dining at Santo's Italian Restaurant (7565 Pearl Rd., 440-234-6480, santospizzaandpasta.com) since the 1970s - first at the original Fairview Park location and then the current spot in Middleburg Heights - often only divulging the spot to family and close friends. Why? Because Santo's is special, the kind of place where friendly, smiling faces greet you when you arrive, where there are pizza guys deftly working big, hot ovens, and where there's a cozy, comfortable dining room in which to enjoy a great Italian meal at reasonable prices. The kind of place Billy Joel sings about in Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Raymond Santosuosso, who owns the restaurant with his brother-in-law Tony Raffin, can be found in the kitchen almost every night. "I was just in the back making a special vegan dish for someone," Santosuosso says when I arrive.
So, what's the secret to the restaurant's longevity? "We've held true to my mother's recipes," says Santosuosso. That would be Florence, not to be confused with the Italian city of the same name. Florence and her husband John still dine here regularly, and Florence, notes Santosuosso, "would be quick to point out anything not up to her standards."
From-scratch pasta dinners all are under $15, and the chicken, veal and seafood dishes are just a few dollars more, including traditional favorites like chicken parmesan and veal marsala. The menu also offers house specialties, pizzas, stromboli and sandwiches. "Most people say our red sauce is the best they've ever tasted," boasts the owner. Chicken Chasmondo is a favorite, with red pepper pasta, sautéed with spinach in garlic and olive oil (it can also be made with veal or scallops). Diners also are often surprised how good the spare ribs are for an Italian joint.
The atmosphere is comfortable and informal, and the food.. well, "Try our food, as it will be just like walking into your grandmother's kitchen," promises Santosuosso.