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Road Trip! Destination: Cleveland

| Saturday, April 14, 2012, 5:19 p.m.

Pittsburgh. Cleveland. So close together, yet rarely a kind word between them.

Can this mutual antipathy really be all about football• Yes.

The time has come to stop seeing our neighbor to the northwest through pigskin-colored glasses, and recognize Cleveland for what it really is: a long-lost sibling.

Sure, the cities don't look much alike. Our economies, topographies and biographies are totally different. They have basketball -- we have hockey. But "The Mistake by the Lake" (choose your own epithet) has some incredible strengths, too.

One of them is the Cleveland International Film Festival, which runs from March 22 to April 1. It's not Sundance, but it's a very big, very convenient, well-run and consistently worthwhile film festival, where you're virtually guaranteed to see something new. You can binge-watch movies in bulk, or simply use it as an excuse to check out how the other side lives when the soul-crushing malaise of living with the Cleveland Browns has lifted for the season.

And there are more than a few things to do between screenings, including a few options apart from the obvious: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cleveland International Film Festival

The 36th Annual Cleveland International Film Festival has a distinct advantage over the Three Rivers Film Festival, and even some bigger festivals like Toronto's -- it's all in one place.

The massive Tower City Center complex on Public Square, downtown, is kind of like a vertical urban mall, with a selection of stores and restaurants, although mostly downscale chains like Champs Sports and Payless Shoe Source. It has, however, supported a giant multiplex theater, which hosts the film festival. So there's no need for breathless running from one theater to the next, navigating unfamiliar roads or public transit.

Generally, as with most film festivals, picking which movies to see is kind of a crapshoot. There are very few reviews for most of these movies, which are hitting screens for the first time. At most, they've played at another festival or two, or overseas.

In choosing what to see, go on instinct. For many foreign, indie and/or documentaries, you won't recognize the directors and actors, so you mostly just have to trust the summaries provided in the festival guide. Odds are, you'll probably see a few clunkers, so it's best to hedge your bets and see as many movies as you can squeeze in.

The amount of ground covered is pretty amazing. For instance, there's a documentary, called "Beauty is Embarrassing," about the bizarre modern and pop artist Wayne White, whose career took off when he designed the insane sets for "Pee-wee's Playhouse." There's also "Brooklyn Castle," about an inner-city junior high that has won an incredible 26 national chess titles but might lose its chess team to budget cuts. Then there's "King Curling," a goofy Norwegian comedy in the tradition of "Kingpin" and "Slap Shot" about the inherently odd sport. Details:

East 4th Street restaurants

Man can't survive on popcorn alone. There are plenty of fast food/food court-type places to eat in Tower City, if you need a quick bite between flicks. If you have more time, though, it's a good idea to venture outside and take a quick walk down the street to East 4th Street, Cleveland's No. 1 restaurant row, and a brilliant example of successful, pedestrian-centered urban redevelopment.

The city's dining reputation is perhaps second only to Chicago in the Midwest, largely because of celebrity chefs like Michael Ruhlman and (Iron Chef) Michael Symon. Symon's Lola Bistro is the anchor tenant on East 4th Street, taking serious charcuterie and Cleveland's many Old World culinary traditions into the future with dishes like beef cheek pierogies, maple-bacon ice cream, beef tongue, and crispy veal sweetbreads. You'll definitely need reservations.

A few steps away is the Greenhouse Tavern, renowned for its farm-to-table and sustainable, eco-friendly ethos, as well as its adventurous menu. Packed in among the restaurants is Erie Island Coffee, a laid-back oasis of comfy couches, local art and good coffee. There are a few clothing boutiques, too, like Dredgers Union and CLE Clothing Co. Details:

'A Christmas Story' House and Museum

OK, it's not really the season, but if you're coming to Cleveland for movies, you might as well check out the city's most iconic movie landmark. "A Christmas Story" is one of the few Christmas movies that rewards repeat viewings. Its nostalgic, humorous remembrance of Christmas in the 1950s has found millions of fans. Ralphie's fully restored house is in the historic, artsy Tremont neighborhood, and contains all kinds of props, photos, costumes and memorabilia from the movie. You can see the toys from Higbee's window, Randy's snowsuit, the chalkboard from Ralphie's classroom and the family's car. Look for the leg lamp in the window, of course. Details:

Lucky's Cafe

If you're going all-out for the film festival, you'll want to get a good start on the day. Lucky's Cafe in Tremont is one of the best breakfast places in town. It's also one of the best bakeries. The Baked Mac-n-Cheese -- with cheddar, brie, parmesan, mozzarella, brioche crumbs and local bacon -- is really, really good. So are the cheddar scallion biscuits. And everything else. Details:

The Arcade

They just don't make 'em like this anymore. The Arcade, one of the nation's first enclosed shopping centers (1890), has a Gilded Age elegance that makes even the most upscale contemporary malls look like giant, unremarkable boxes surrounded by acres of asphalt. The vast Romanesque Revival building was modeled on Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, with long, ornate wrought-iron railings wrapping around each level, overlooking a vast, elegantly lighted atrium. The top floors are the Hyatt Regency Cleveland, where you can book a room for the night. Details:

West Side Market

Even if you can't carry a bunch of perishable items around all day, you can pick up a bag of tender, perfectly spiced and smoked beef jerky from J & J's Czuchraj Meats, featured by local superstar chef Michael Symon on Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." Details:

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