By Ethan Fixell
Updated June 10, 2014
Jonathon Sawyer, the mind behind Trentina.
© Jonathon Sawyer

Just north of a lush valley, in a town bisected by a grand, winding river, a treasure trove of delicious Italian beer tempts the lucky visitor. No, you won’t find this beer oasis in Tuscany, Umbria or Veneto—or any region of Italy, for that matter. It’s right here in America, in a not-so-little town called Cleveland.

Yes, that Cleveland.

The US city once known for its resemblance to a “Scooby-Doo ghost town” and for being the third most likely city in which to be attacked by a dog, has embarked on a slow and steady economic comeback in the past decade, fueled at least in part by an influx of fantastic eateries…and some incredible beer.

Leading the charge of this renaissance is Michael Symon, the famed restaurateur and Iron Chef who arguably first put Cleveland back on the culinary map. But as Symon’s profile continues to rise, so do his frequent-flyer miles, as he is frequently called away from town for such opportunities as hosting ABC’s The Chew.

These days, sitting deepest in the city’s trenches is Jonathon Sawyer, Symon’s former chef de cuisine, and the man responsible for such Cleveland staples as Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat and Bar Cento. His new Italian restaurant, Trentina, promises not only to raise the bar again for Cleveland dining, but also offer some of the best Italian beer available to Americans.

I recently met with Sawyer at Birreria, a restaurant and cask-ale brewery atop Eataly, Mario Batali’s high–end Italian market in New York City. We sat down and ordered two of their unfiltered, unpasteurized, naturally carbonated house-made brews: for Sawyer, a Gina pale ale featuring fresh thyme “from the hills of Borgorose, Italy”; and for me, a Wanda mild ale brewed with roasted chestnuts.

There, Sawyer reminisced about living in Rome in his twenties, when he first tried Birra di Demon, a high-gravity, malty brew that blew his socks off. But it took a decade for him to visit Trento—the northern city that’s the ancestral home of his wife and business partner, Amelia. There, the chef realized that Cleveland shares some characteristics with parts of Italy. No joke!

Here are some of the inspirations behind Trentina.

1. Cleveland’s nearby Cuyahoga Valley recalls the valley of Trento.
The regions share nearly identical growing seasons. “The only DOP protected apples in all of Europe are in Trento, and the apples in Ohio are second to none,” says Sawyer. As in Trento, garlic, tomatoes and potatoes are among the best produce Ohio has to offer. The two areas even share the same lake fish.

2. Clevelanders have backgrounds similar to Northern Italians’.
of its location in the northeastern-most part of Italy, Trento benefits from the bordering Austrian, Swiss and Slovenian influences, contributing to a culture and ethnic background very similar to that of Clevelanders. Sawyer likes to point out that Clevelanders descending from this “Indo-European” part of the world gravitate toward their heritage cuisine, including foods not traditionally associated with Italy, such as sauerkraut, farro and buckwheat.

3. Italian beer complements food.
European beer is, on the whole, often maltier, yeastier and more well-rounded than many American styles. “The American trend is to make beer so challenging, you can’t pair it with food,” says Sawyer. He cites the example of Green Flash Brewing Co.’s Palate Wrecker, an imperial IPA that smells and tastes fantastic, but (as its name implies) will blow your mouth apart with alcohol and hops. Look out for plenty of Kölsch and Berliner Weisse at Trentina, as well as a Doppio Malto from the Italian cooperative Agraria Riva del Garda, and Belgian-style ales from the Italian brewery Birrificio della Granda.

4. German wine is just as authentic a match.
German wines such as off-dry Rieslings and Müller-Thurgaus will pair with the Germanic-Italian food at Trentina, which is acidic, lightly seasoned and minimally salted. You aren’t likely to find any fruity California Cabernets or New World Chardonnays on the menu, but that shouldn’t be a problem for Clevelanders with a taste for northern Italian fare.

5. But you’ll be able to drink American, too.
While the Italian and European beers will help “complete the narrative of the restaurant,” as Sawyer puts it, a few more balanced Cleveland creations will round out the menu at Trentina, such as the Brew Kettle’s Erie Gold wheat, and Rockmill’s Saison. Plus, two collaborative beers with Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing will highlight some of Trento’s regional characteristics. And, of course, any Cleveland beer menu would be incomplete without an offering or two from Great Lakes Brewing. As cool as an all-Italian beer list sounds, veteran chef Sawyer knows that the peeps of Cleveland (and any US city, really) want a range of options. He’s certainly not willing to compromise when it comes to quality, but purity for the sake of purity seems like a counterproductive ambition.

Trentina opens soon at 1903 Ford Drive in Cleveland.