O sanguine restaurateurs! O wearers of rose-colored-glasses! To open a non-cheap restaurant in downtown Detroit on Oct. 30, 2008 — six weeks after the bottom fell out — you gotta know something the rest of us don't.
Well, one thing Tom Agosta and Mike Viviano know is how to serve fabulous food in an appealing atmosphere at prices that reflect the new reality. Whether that's enough to build a new customer base in one of the most depressed cities in the country, time will tell. (Among big cities, metro Detroit's unemployment rate is the highest in the nation.)
Both co-owners had Sicilian grandmothers, and both toiled in other people's restaurants — for a total of 50 years — before making their dream come true. Agosta managed T.J.'s for 20 years, for example. The experience shows.
Friends of mine who ate at Angelina soon after one of the dailies ran a review said it was jammed. More recently, at the non-standard times I visited, it was definitely holding its own. Agosta and Viviano must be visualizing real hard that 90.5 percent of the work force that's not unemployed, and creating mind-pictures of how those folks need to mangia Italian food before hitting the theaters. Or who knows, even the ball fields later on.
That's "Italian food" with some extras, and "prices that reflect the new reality" in truth applies only to the entrées and the wines. (There's an excellent Carmenere for $6 a glass.) Seven-dollar desserts, $8-$9 small antipasti, and $7-$12 appetizers are the way these and many other restaurant owners are shoring up their margins.
There are only three pasta dishes (four if you count the potato-and-flour gnocchi) and three pizzas. The sophisticated Italian menu is supplemented by some fabulous cured and smoked fish and meats as antipasti and by a few dishes that would be comfortable on any menu, such as New York strip, salmon and a pork chop.
The space is one of the attractions, with its seven-foot windows; it's the old Madison Theatre, built in 1917 and closed since 1984, a crying-shame waste of downtown space. The interior is one big room, with bare-topped tables, spaced close for conviviality, separated from a large square bar by a sculpture of minimalist waving black reeds. In one corner hangs a huge Chihuly-like glass sculpture, all yellows and oranges.
But it's the food that should keep theater-goers and others coming back. A starter of pesce (fish), for example, includes smoked mackerel and salmon and house-smoked whitefish mousse. My party could have come to blows over the mousse if we weren't such good friends. It was delicate but smoky, velvety and decadent. Almost as good was a particularly creamy and mellow smoked salmon.
The meats themselves were enough of a treat, but consider the fitting accompaniments: a pile of flaked Parmigiano-Reggiano with a bit of balsamic; a mound of watercress with a superior lemony dressing; a little metal cup of assorted olives; a puddle of grainy mustard. This sort of attention to detail was carried out throughout the meal, with the sides as interesting and delectable as the main courses.
For instance: with a main dish of caramelized onion and Gorgonzola strucolo (strudel) comes a grilled fennel bulb and a hash of diced potatoes and wild mushrooms — each component worthy of as much attention as the top-billed. Imagine the sweetness of the onions combined with the pungency of the cheese, wrapped in the flakiness of the layers and layers of strudel.
Another starter is housemade mozzarella served with arugula and sardine-sized white anchovies. The cheese is made by dunking curd into hot whey and then kneading and stretching it to a silky consistency — quite a show, which Agosta hopes to move to the front for the occasional demonstration.
Pasta is also made in-house and it's slide-down-the-throat velvety. I tried butternut squash ravioli, exquisite little pillows with a rich, sweet filling. Toasted almonds are scattered about (more interesting than pine nuts) and it's topped with wilted rapini for contrast. Linguine and clams are lovingly coated with olive oil and garlic and tossed with pancetta, spinach and mushrooms. Salmon is served with excellent braised cabbage and buttery potatoes.
It's all good. See the menu and the drinks list at Angelinadetroit.com.
And a gentle reminder to waitstaffers everywhere: When the customer declines to order a drink or a dessert or anything else that pushes up the tab, it's polite to hide your disappointment.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.