The Little Professor in West Dearborn, presided over by Tony Fera for 41 years, was an original, offering newspapers from all over the world and more than 8,000 magazines. My friend said he always thought of it for racing forms and girlie mags, not books.
But since September there’s been an open door between the senior Fera’s place and the new Little Cafe next door, run by son Michael Fera and his cousin Larry Dilabbio. Although the two establishments are separate, on the occasional Sunday you’ll get a free cup of coffee with your literary purchase.
“We’re trying to cross-market the two,” says Michael Fera, who worked at the Little Professor for seven years after college. “We wanted to take the bookstore into the current era, because a lot has been outdated.”
It seems to be working, as Fera now sees his old bookstore regulars in the café. And I noted lots of browsers on a Saturday evening — surely not a prime time for bookstore visits if there’s no cappuccino nearby.
Although a majority of the café’s business is now Ford office workers on their lunch hour, Fera and Dilabbio want to take advantage of the many other restaurants in the area and make it a short-stroll, after-dinner destination.
Coffee and dessert are where the café shines thus far. Coffees come from a microroaster near Seattle. The owners plan to feature new microroasters monthly, seeking out prizewinners and offering product by the pound.
The café offers a long list of ice cream sodas and sundaes; on the next menu, the Boston cooler will become the Detroit cooler, in recognition of its Vernor’s base and in response to customer suggestions.
Ice cream is Bindi gelato from Italy or Oak Park-based, family-owned Ashby’s Sterling. The Ashby’s was chosen, Fera says, after taste-testing many brands. The pecans in the butter pecan are “whole half pecans, double roasted,” and here’s an interesting sociological fact: Older people want their hot fudge sundaes made with butter pecan ice cream.
“Hot fudge on butter pecan?” I yelped. “Isn’t that gilding the lily?” “I’ve reached my max,” said Fera.
Nonetheless, he’s planning a Sanders hot fudge latte and a waffle with hot fudge and pecans.
I liked that malted waffle with blueberries instead; it was hot off the grill, light and fluffy, well priced at $3.95 and available anytime.
Another pleasant surprise was fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, a large glass for $1.95.
The salads, of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink variety, are well made. I liked the Mandarin, with blue cheese, red onions and walnuts in addition to the orange slices. Greek is also good, made with romaine and a dressing that’s not cloying.
I was less fond of the sandwiches, made from Breadsmith bread — too soft for my taste. One of my companions pointed out that they were a good alternative to fast food, but another said that Subway makes a better Italian sub. The sharp cheddar that was supposed to adorn my roast beef sandwich looked, felt, and tasted like a Kraft single to me. If the kitchen is out of cheddar, they should tell you and offer a substitute, not just hope that your tastes are so debased by years of McDonald’s that you won’t notice.
Soups are not housemade. Chili is mild.
Returning to dessert, just looking at the display case of imported Italian confections — profiteroles, tiramisu, various tortas — is enough to make your face break out. I tried the torta limone and found it just like lemon meringue pie in cake form. There are also offerings from various Dearborn bakeries, such as Danish, turnovers, and a peanut butter (!) baklava. I’m sure the latter is delicious, but it also makes me think that both lily-gilding and the melting pot have gone over the top.
The cousins’ aim is a place where evening customers feel free to sip, linger, read — even listen to music (they’re seeking a harpist). Why should a chain like Border’s get all the latte-literary traffic?
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.