When we think of Italian cuisine, we're usually transported to a scene out of a Disney movie, the one with the two dogs that smooch over a heaping plate of spaghetti by candlelight. Sure, there's an air of nostalgic romance to it, but it's also an aging stereotype. And it also happens to be the type of aesthetic found in plenty of the old-school Italian joints around town.
Thing is, our palates have evolved. That mound of canned tomato sauce atop noodles and then buried in Parmesan may have been all well and fine when Mom made it every week to feed the lot of kids, but now it's different. We want to be introduced to new culinary techniques offered throughout the Boot. We often seek to be challenged by something different and unexpected when we visit a new restaurant. More than anything, we look for passion on each and every plate.
That's precisely what we find at chef-owner Dave Mancini's La Rondinella. Remember, he's the guy who challenged our understanding of pizza — walking away from the classic Detroit deep dish square and offering up heavenly thin slices, prepared with love and fresh ingredients. When he set up Supino Pizzeria, we thought he was taking us to another level. We were wrong: He was only getting started.
La Rondinella, situated next door to Supino in the former Taste of Ethiopia on Russell Street at the Fisher Service Drive, is the yearslong passion project Mancini dreamed up to pay homage to his Italian heritage. He took nearly two years revamping the space, perfecting the menu, and getting every detail just right. Upon our first visit, we were happy he took his time.
A simple white-and-blue color scheme is tied together by a large painting, which depicts Mancini's father's hometown of Supino, Italy. Other than that, the brick walls are simply whitewashed, complementing the light that comes from the large windows out front. A long bar in the center welcomes singles and couples stopping in for a quick antipasti and a drink. The zinc-top tables and wooden benches offer cozy dining sections, where guests are just close enough to each other to ask what they chose for their Amari flights, but still are given enough space for an intimate experience.
Guests are treated to a warm greeting by the knowledgeable servers as soon as they're seated. They go to great lengths to make diners feel at home and are quick to offer suggestions about the food and drink menus alike. The wine list focuses on Italian wines, and servers are happy to explain what might go well with a meal and what to expect from each selection.
As for the food, the focus is on how Mancini interprets the many dishes he has encountered over the years. Translated, the dishes are simple, but uniquely executed.
The menu is broken up into several sections, including antipasti, sides, and salads. The wilted Swiss chard, as a side, bursts with garlic and citrus flavor. The hearty Fritelle di bacalla (cod and potato fritters) are hearty and creamy on the inside and crispy, not oily, on the outside. The gratinato di finocchio (roasted fennel) with slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lemon vinaigrette, are robust in cheesy flavor, yet light at the same time. The breadsticks are artfully presented, yet quite affordable. Even the meatballs, served with marinara sauce, ciabatta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano are prepared with extra care, which shines through in taste. The insalati, best described as flat crepes topped with a number of savory veggies and meats, are an interesting starter. Not quite a pizza, they make the perfect accompaniment with cocktails or vino.
The handful of entrees appear simple at first but are prepared in a style all Mancini's own. Among our favorites is the rabbit gnocchi. The pasta lacks that familiar, dense doughy consistency we tend to associate with gnocchi. Instead, his are light, almost airy, allowing for the richness of the rabbit to come through. The manicotti has little resemblance to those ricotta-filled and marinara-topped tubes of pasta one might be accustomed to. Instead, he takes rich, earthy roasted mushrooms and wraps them tightly in crepes, a pleasantly surprising take on an otherwise played out entree. This replaces a similarly prepared lasagna.
Some favorites of our dining guest include a pasture-raised lamb shoulder, which is tenderly braised overnight in white wine and served with polenta, as well as the chicken, which is roasted to give the skin a wonderful crispness, while the chicken remains nice and juicy.
After dinner, be sure to sample the many selections of Amari, an Italian herbal liqueur that serves as an after-dinner digestif. The range of styles of Amari at La Rondinella go from sweet and syrupy to quite bitter.
As for dessert, we highly recommend the pistachio Semifreddo, a thick, frozen custard chock-full of nuts.
What we love about La Rondinella is that it serves to complete the dining scene in Eastern Market. Now visitors of this historic neighborhood have their choice between casual bars and restaurants, deli-style spots, a pizza joint, and high-end French cuisine. This newest edition gives you the fine-dining experience, without being pretentious, a fine balance that Mancini nails.