Ricardo Salerno of Gusto Restaurant in Cleveland’s Little Italy is either a musician with a day job in a restaurant, or a restaurateur with a side job as a musician.
When diners at Gusto sample the food or hear him play the accordion, they are hard-pressed to determine which is his deeper passion.
It’s no surprise that Salerno is an exceptionally talented and sensitive accordion player. Ever since his father gave him an accordion as a Christmas gift when he was 5 years old and growing up in Shaker Heights, Salerno has had a passion for the instrument and music in general.
Learning from his self-taught father and later studying classical music and theory, Salerno emerged as a skilled accordion player. With a group called The Artistics that featured a soprano and baritone, he traveled as a working musician, playing across the country in clubs and restaurants including Mamma Leone’s in New York City.
For a time, young Salerno combined a schedule of teaching music lessons in the afternoons and working clubs in the evenings. In the mornings, he’d often have breakfast in a friend’s restaurant in Beachwood. When his friend expressed a desire to sell the restaurant, Salerno bought it, called it Salerno’s Cafe, and thought he had found a perfect way to supplement his music career with some additional revenue.
Because the restaurant was only open for breakfast and lunch, he figured he could devote his mornings to food and his afternoons and evenings to music.
Soon, Salerno found that cooking and getting to know customers brought him as much joy as music and he started focusing more on the restaurant business. But as the balance shifted, he continued to entertain in the restaurant, playing his accordion when he was not needed elsewhere.
After closing Salerno’s and working for another chef for a while, he and his son Fabio opened Gusto Restaurant in the former Porcelli’s space a decade ago in Little Italy. On any given night, Ricardo will wander from table to table playing traditional Italian songs or taking requests from diners. The selections often include Broadway show tunes and operatic material.
On some nights, particularly on weekends or for special gatherings, Salerno will bring in singers such as Amy Jackson or Claire Connelly, who perform arias and songs accompanied by Salerno’s light touch.
The accordion is not a particularly easy instrument to master, with its piano-like keyboard for the right hand to play melody, while the left hand must manipulate a side panel full of buttons for harmonic backing. Yet Salerno, having played since childhood, produces an effortless quality and fluid phrasing.
The food at Gusto is mostly traditional Northern Italian cooking with a few Southern dishes rounding out the menu. Salerno says the restaurant’s calamari appetizer is a signature dish, along with the fettuccine with shrimp in a saffron cream sauce, and osso buco. He says they also “do a bruschetta a bit differently, with prosciutto and asparagus.”
Salerno has spawned a restaurant family: The recently opened Lago in the Aloft hotel on the east bank of the Flats is owned by his son Fabio, and La Pizzaria on Murray Hill in Little Italy is owned by his other son, William.
His diners, Salerno says, are a mix of professionals, visitors to Little Italy and arts patrons coming from nearby University Circle, including the museums, gardens and Severance Hall. “I always have a great time talking to the people who come in, hearing about their lives.”
Asked about the significance of music in his life, Salerno took a long pause, then said simply, “I’d be a lost soul without it.”
Gusto is at 12022 Mayfield Road, in the Little Italy area of Cleveland. Call 216-791-9900 or see www.gustolittleitaly.com.