On Christmas Day, Jonathon Sawyer can usually count on three things: At least 55 people will show up to dinner; his mother will cook the turkey; and Aunt Geraldine will bring the pie. But this year, the ritual won’t be the same. As Sawyer gets ready to launch Trentina, a Cleveland restaurant named for Trentino, the northern region of Italy that his wife’s family is from, he’s taking on more than his usual share of the cooking: The meal will be a sneak preview of Trentina’s menu, which will showcase the area’s creamy pastas, smoked fish and exquisite cheeses.
Sawyer won’t have to look far for his ingredients since Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley shares nearly the same latitude and growing seasons as Trentino, and they have similarly spectacular produce. “I’d take the Pepsi Challenge and pit Cleveland’s food against anywhere in the world,” he says.
The boisterous chef has spent the past few years helping Cleveland’s food scene shed its underdog reputation. Sawyer is behind a half-dozen brilliant spots that are eclectic but all share, as he puts it, “my interpretation of the Cuyahoga Valley” and its diverse influences. They range from his flagship, The Greenhouse Tavern, a French-influenced bistro that earned him an F&W Best New Chef 2010 award, to the two Sawyer’s Street Frites stands he recently opened in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
To prepare for Trentina’s summer launch, Sawyer spent six weeks staging in Italy. He cooked in top restaurants and was charmed by how competitive locals get about food. “Every generation of grandmas learns how previous generations did things wrong,” he says. He also learned an important proverb: “The mouth is not tired until it smells like a cow,” meaning “finish your meal with cheese.” To make his holiday dinner feel authentic, he creates his own pizzoccheri, layering noodles, cheese and greens. “It’s rich and sticky, like a peasant mac and cheese,” says Sawyer.
The excellent freshwater fish he ate there reminded him of Ohio, so he created a recipe drawing on both places: potato-sauerkraut pancakes topped with smoked trout. “This is a great mash-up of what you see in Cleveland and Trentino,” says Sawyer, adding that Trentino’s Austrian influences are echoed by Cleveland’s Eastern European heritage. “Everyone here knows someone who still makes sauerkraut,” says Sawyer.
The main course is more familiar—spicy-sweet smoked ham with pepper jelly—but dessert will be a surprise. This year, Aunt Geraldine’s pie makes way for Sawyer’s Dobos torte, a multilayered sponge cake that’s popular among Sawyer’s Hungarian-German relatives.
Still, some traditions won’t change—like the infamous lamp from the film A Christmas Story, shaped like a leg in fishnet stockings. “A lot of us have a leg lamp at home,” says Sawyer. “At Christmas, we pull it out and put it in the window.”
Salma Abdelnour, a former F&W editor, is the author of Jasmine and Fire.
Jonathon Sawyer’s Gift Guide
Sawyer suggests five gifts for the foodie in your life.
Offset Spoons From Michael Ruhlman
“They’re angled just right, so you can dip deep into a pot without spilling.” $34; shop.ruhlman.com.
Pointer Brand Aprons
“Made in America, awesome quality and cheaper than many other brands—which is great, since I go through them pretty quickly.” $22; pointerbrand.com.
OYO Stone Fruit Vodka
“From central Ohio’s first micro-distillery; insanely delicious over ice.” $32; middlewestspirits.com.
Wüsthof Serrated Utility Knife
“The perfect knife for everyday use. I’d even put it in the dishwasher.” $50; williams-sonoma.com.