Vince’s is eternal … like young voices echoing in a sun-baked courtyard long after the children have gone … like the weathered silhouettes of villas on Mediterranean hilltops. Like Castro dei Volsci, the village south of Rome (the Eternal City), where Vincenzo and Maria Perfili were born, raised and got married. And where, in 1954, they decided to transplant their lives and fortunes to the Motor City.
When the Perfilis first started Vince’s Ristorante Italiano in 1960 on Detroit’s southwest side, they served mostly pizza, pasta and hamburgers. Their first dining area had four tables and 12 chairs. Living in a house behind the business, they grew vegetables in their garden, made all their own pasta on the premises and catered to a neighborhood clientele.
But as the restaurant grew in renown and diners started coming from all over Detroit, the menu offered more and more dishes as well — with the physical space expanding in 1962 and again in 1964. Then in 1978, Gianfranco Avignoni, an artist from Italy, decorated the homey interior with a series of amazing paintings. His large, poetic canvases depicting traditional Italian scenes were permanently fixed to the walls of the main dining room.
With one exception (a Venetian canal), the paintings are of streets, plazas and Tiber riverbanks in Rome. Anchored by a palette of earth tones — olive and deep greens, beiges and browns — they make Vince’s into a kind of museum where we can see the Villa Borghese, the Tivoli Gardens, the mythical twins Romulus and Remus, as well as images of life rhythms so peaceful and unlike our own as to be hypnotic.
In 1981, after the restaurant added a large banquet area, Avignoni returned to decorate it with more Roman scenes and a Cinemascopic rendering of Castro dei Volsci on its sunny hilltop. Now no one can dine on the home-cooked specialties from Vince’s kitchen without basking in the timeless glow of the Italian landscape, the fading light of a Roman evening, the reflections off ripples in the Tiber.
But the feeling of time on an endless loop also comes from the recipes themselves. As you dip your spoon into the tortellini al brodo — lovely buds of dough swimming in a clear chicken broth — you can’t miss the strong aroma of nostalgia that makes this a soup very like another. The feeling triggered is of sitting in your grandma’s kitchen (be she Italian, Polish, Chinese or whatever) as she ladles out a hot bowl of that sublime liquid she has left simmering on the stove most of the afternoon.
Then there’s the pizza … eternally great … but so unlike the fare we’ve come to expect from fast-food, mass-market America that it might seem strange to those unfamiliar with Italian tradition. No stuffed crust, pineapple or other gimmicks here. Baked in a brick oven and prepared with plenty of TLC, Vince’s pies have become legendary. But in case you’re uncertain, just start out with a “baby” (a misnomer) with cheese and mushrooms, shake on some peperoncino (atomic-strength powder made from home-grown, dried and ground red peppers), and step on an escalator to heaven.
The pasta dishes include some quiet-knockout renditions of classics: pasta alla carbonara (tossed in eggs, bacon and cheese) and fettuccine alfredo (extra creamy); pasta alla putanesca and pasta arabiata (both spiced to suit, but watch out if you ask for “hot”); and the perfectly lovely pasta con piselli (with peas, mushrooms and ham in a cream sauce). Of course, we can’t forget the homemade ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna, cannelloni or manicotti — nor the veal, seafood, sausage sandwiches, cannoli, spumoni, caffe espresso and cappuccino. (Whoever’s drooling may now use a napkin.)
In the 43 years that the Perfilis have been preparing these dishes, their fidelity to the recipes and unwavering standards of homemade excellence have remained as fixed as the lines in Avignoni’s landscapes. Vince’s has never stopped making its own pasta, and now three staff members devote two days a week to turning out home-style fettuccine, spinach fettuccine, linguine and spaghetti et al. so that diners can always expect freshness and quality.
Lidia, the Perfilis’ daughter who was born in Castro dei Volsci, has witnessed firsthand the long evolution of this labor of love. She’s now more than ever involved in managing Vince’s, as is her son, Carlo, a young man with an intimate knowledge of the business and the kitchen. Carlo also has the personal touch, the restaurateur’s priceless affability with customers that makes them always feel welcome.
With seven family members on staff, plus 10 other employees, things seem to be going along as smoothly and deliciously as ever. But Maria, taking a break from her culinary magic, lets her deeper feelings show as she offers us a glass of red wine. Vince, her husband and sharer of a rare vision, passed away in October — and as she looks at one of Avignoni’s beautiful scenes, she holds back a quiet tear: “Those buildings are the Rome that’s fading away.”
Lunches or evenings during the week are quiet affairs, so if work has you climbing the cubicle walls, Vince’s will seem like an oasis of calm consideration. But weekends bring an influx from around the metro area, including banquets and wedding dinners — lots of folks longing for a taste of the eternal.
Vince’s Ristorante Italiano is at 1341 Springwells in Detroit (off I-75, two exits south of the Ambassador Bridge, then north on Springwells). Closed Monday. Call 313-842-4857.
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