With fresh ingredients and plenty of imports from the old country, the Barbieri family is attempting to re-create an Italian café in Grosse Pointe. They have Mokarabia coffee, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma and mortadella with pistachios — all that’s lacking is a glass of wine to sip with the panini.
Although the Barbieris are doing a fine job now, Café Nini will come into its own when its liquor license arrives and when the weather permits sidewalk tables. I can imagine East Siders stopping by for a hit of espresso and a roll before work, and returning in the evening to sip Chianti and watch the foot traffic on the Hill.
Open since March 7, Café Nini is the fourth still-existing restaurant to carry the name Da Edoardo. Edoardo Barbieri Sr., a former cook in the Italian army, opened in downtown Detroit in 1951, and the family now owns three Da Edoardos — in Grosse Pointe Woods, the Fox Theatre building and Grand Blanc. The newest, much simpler iteration is named not for panini but for co-owner Alicia “Nini” Barbieri, a 22-year-old Wayne State University student and granddaughter of the patriarch.
The menu is soups, salads and sandwiches, plus an easy-to-fathom, affordable list of coffees. They include cappuccino Viennese (espresso with whipped cream and cocoa), iced carmelotto (a paean to excess: espresso with Italian chocolate, caramel and whipped cream) and even a short American decaf for the unconvinced. But aficionados will try “the Mercedes of coffees,” as Nini’s mother Jodi puts it: $13 a pound Illy. Go to the company’s Web site, illy.com, for a debunking of myths about espresso. (Example: Italians don’t garnish their espresso with lemon peel — a good cup has no need to counteract the bitterness, because it’s not bitter.)
The Barbieris are proud that their espresso machine is not preprogrammed so that all the barista has to do is press a button. “We pack it ourselves,” Jodi says.
Likewise the salad dressings. The Caesar, though a bit heavy for my tastes, does taste of anchovies, which is rare these days. You can get a whole salad of nothing but arugula and shaved Parmesan curls; with the addition of carpaccio, this would remind me of my all-time favorite Italian meal, eaten outdoors at a café in Lucca. Consider carpaccio, Nini.
Nini offers an excellent sandwich that combines mortadella with prosciutto on crunchy ciabatta, sliced thin and grilled. More elaborate sandwiches include the Milanese (breaded chicken breast with arugula, Parmesan and lemon vinaigrette), city sub (salami, prosciutto, mortadella, provolone with vinaigrette) and Caprese (fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil vinaigrette).
When I first visited nine days after opening, I found my Milanese too dry, too skimpy. The all-veg primavera with goat cheese was good and generous, but would have been better with the vegetables warm. On a return visit 10 days later, kinks had been worked out, and both sandwiches we ordered were top-notch.
The same goes for the soups, which include a daily, slightly thickened minestrone with spinach, and a rotating special. It’s worth calling ahead to ask whether potato-leek — in effect a warm vichyssoise — is on. It’s rich and buttery, puréed but not completely, and a generous portion for $3.95. Pints and quarts of soup are available to take home.
For dessert, there are biscotti, American-style cookies and coffee “toppers” — you place the cookie on top of your cup and let it steam. More filling is a “babca cake,” a big, dense cinnamon roll baked in a muffin tin, not too sweet.
To tide you over until wine is available, Nini stocks some interesting bottled drinks: aranciata and limonata from Italy, slightly fizzy; and Izze sparkling fruit juices from Colorado. I wouldn’t have predicted that sparkling water and pear juice would combine well, but they’re tangy and excellent.
Café Nini is good-looking, all dark polished woods and Italian posters, with a deep-brown leather sofa. Check out the poster of the couple dancing on a gramophone, by the door. The café uses real plates and flatware — a blessed relief for those who don’t equate “eating out” with “eating out of a plastic basket.”
The café is open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. now; later hours are planned when the sidewalks heat up.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.