by Mel Small
For many of us, the last time we saw the Greek letter p (which, for the sake of easy reading, we'll call "Pi") was in high-school geometry class. Now anyone traveling on Northwestern Highway near Twelve Mile will see it again, emblazoned on the facade of the restaurant that used to be the Caffe Milano and before that the fabled Excalibur.
Managing owner Tony Gioutsos, who also owns Il Posto across Northwestern and the catering hall behind Pi, says he thought of the unusual name a "cool symbol" for his five-month-old restaurant for at least four reasons. First, he is proud of his graduate engineering training where he confronted the mysteries of Pi almost daily. And he is a Greek-American. Further, Pi has maintained Caffe Milano's wood-burning pizza oven and pizzas are, of course, circular. Finally, and most important, Pi roams the (circular) globe for its eclectic cuisine.
There is more to Pi than just the name; during happy hours (3-6 p.m.), tapas, normally $5 apiece, go for $3.14. That same $3.14 will deliver an individual, thin-crusted pizza margherita on Mondays the rest of the week it costs $6.
More formal than its immediate predecessor, Pi flaunts heavy linen tablecloths, elegant oversized white china in a variety of interesting shapes, dramatic white ceiling-to-floor curtains separating the lively tapas bar from the two main dining areas and a professional waitstaff smartly attired in black.
Although primarily served in the bar, the tapas, available as well in the dining areas, are well worth sampling. Sausage with Hungarian peppers, meatballs in tomato salsa, and delicate fried calamari with paprika-chili are among the options. Although the two large grilled shrimp were succulent, they were a bit salty. And these are real bite-sized tapas, not small plates; one order will satisfy no more than two diners.
Larger-sized regular appetizers include beef tenderloin with arugula and Parmigiano ($14) and gravlax ($9). Averaging around $9, the seven starters may be a bit overpriced considering the relatively modest cost of the entrées, most of which are in the high teens.
Those entrées come with soup or salad. The soup of the day, which could be a hearty dense ham and lentil, is the clear choice over the merely pleasant green salad.
The warm, baked-in-house soft rolls are served with butter in little packets, a surprising presentation for an upscale eatery.
And while I'm at it, although the service was generally impeccable, patrons should not be required to keep their knives after the first course is cleared, especially when, in the absence of bread plates, it might mean having to place the knife on the lovely white tablecloth.
Chef Matteo Giuffrida, who worked at Miami's Doral Country Club, presides over one of the most ambitious kitchens in town. His entrées move geographically from Western Europe's Irish lamb stew to Eastern Europe's Polish bigos (beef, pork, sauerkraut and prunes). In between, the menu touches down in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Greece and in Slavic regions.
Italy weighs in with five items, including tender veal scallopini with artichoke hearts and mint ($19) swimming, or perhaps even drowning, in an espagnole sauce reduction. That same high-quality veal appears with a German accent in a mushroom demi-glace with always-welcome spaetzle ($19). Giuffrida also prepares a rare treat in these parts, a classic Portuguese salt cod ($19) that arrives at your table in a deep bowl accompanied by scalloped potatoes, onions and peppers in a thick tomato broth. Don't worry, the fish itself has shed most of its salt well before it is served.
The Hungarian paprika's csirke galuskaval, which the server described as chicken paprikash, was a bit on the tough side, and more important, did not include the requisite sour cream. But considering the kitchen's versatility, which ranges over the European continent from Greek lamb chops to French bouillabaisse to Spanish paella, a few minor missteps are easily tolerated.
The well-selected wine list sticks to the Old World as well, with nothing from Australia, Chile or the United States. Most of the 40 bottles or so are in the $25-$32 range with a retsina from Greece, a pinot grigio from Italy, and a tempranillo from Spain among the most reasonable from the five represented nations. Beer fanciers will be pleased by Pi's 60 choices from various countries with, for example, obscure quaffs from Macedonia and Russia.
Most of the time the only dessert made in house is a fluffy tiramisu.
Gioutsos is heavily into jazz, reflected by the sophisticated music on the sound system, and, especially, the jazz performers who appear on weekends. Celebrated jazz flutist Alexander Zonjic is Pi's music director. When the weather warms up, he will also offer jazz on a patio fronting Northwestern Highway, an interesting experiment considering the competition from the noise of the onrushing cars.
From its name to its tasteful design to its unusual bill of fare, Pi is off to a promising start. Linking geometry with geography, it offers an inexpensive way to experience a culinary Grand Tour of Europe without ever leaving the state.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.