by Mel Small
Although Due Venti, when translated as "two-twenty," shares its name with 220 Merrill, it is definitely not part of a local chain. The antithesis of the bustling Birmingham restaurant that also does Italian, Due Venti, which opened last August in Clawson, is a sedate trattoria with a sophisticated Northern Italian kitchen presided over by owners David and Nicole Seals.
The Seals, who are residents of Clawson, were attracted by the city's relatively low rents and burgeoning restaurant scene (Black Lotus, Royal Kubo, Sabidee, Da Nang) when they decided to move into a small building at 220 Main St., two blocks south of Fourteen Mile Road, that once housed a gluten-free shop. David, who previously was the chef at Federal Mogul, and Nicole, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, are not constrained by a gluten-free regimen.
The Seals painted the main walls of their dining room, seating around 50, in a warm yellow hue and decorated them with a huge mirror (perhaps to artificially enhance its size) and several paintings executed by Eva, Nicole's Italian grandmother, whose own intriguing portrait appears over the tiniest bar in the state. The small room and the fact that Due Venti is open only for dinner make reservations a must.
Emphasizing local produce and preparing everything from scratch, including the pasta, the Seals have put together a brief but inventive menu that changes with the seasons. And, perhaps as important, all but one of their elegant mains are in the $17-$20 range.
Although most every restaurant these days offers designer pizza appetizers, Due Venti's are special, with one winner being the crunchy thin-crusted Bianca, composed of goat cheese, roasted wild mushrooms, garlic, Fontina cheese, rosemary and — as a welcome wild card — quince. Another pizza blends pork and fennel sausage, red-pepper sauce, ricotta and pecorino. Vying with the pizzas for attention is the large creamy chunk of baked tagleggio cheese wrapped in pastry accompanied by roasted garlic, apricot and shallot marmalade, and, another surprise, a sweet fig and walnut cake nugget. Virtually all of the Seals' presentations contain a surprise or two among the garnishing tidbits.
A traditional antipasto platter, two soups, three inviting salads and pan-fried cauliflower fritters round out the firsts. Although the menu is not exactly vegetarian-friendly, the fritters, and, among the entrées, mushroom crêpes and baked eggplant should appeal to that segment of the clientele.
The eight other entrées cover the expected variety of pasta, meat, fish and chicken preparations. The most unexpected (because of its relative obscurity in local Italian eateries) may be porco brasato, ribs braised in a tomato-and-wine ragout seasoned with cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and olives, enlivened by the cabbage and garlic sauté upon which they rest. The exceedingly tender meat falls ever so easily from the bones in a subtle dish that demonstrates you don't need a heavy barbecue sauce to savor ribs.
The fish on Due Venti's winter menu is a moist seared sea bass, lightly encrusted with pistachios, surrounded by such little pleasures as garbanzo beans, goat cheese and citrus fruit. My regular dining partner, who routinely requests a lemon wedge for her maritime favorites, refrained on this occasion because she feared it might obscure the entrée's gentle layering of flavors.
Chicken appears on the menu as a rather small but meaty bone-in breast simmered in an assertive Marsala sauce with olives, raisins, garbanzo beans and sun-dried tomatoes, while the most expensive entrée at $26 is a veal chop in mushroom sauce that arrives with a potato root, pecorino and celery root gratin. Venison sausage crêpes with blueberries and pine nuts, pasta and tiny meatballs, feathery light mini gnocchi with ricotta, pancetta and spinach, and white-wine pasta stuffed with sweet potatoes, leeks, walnuts and mascarpone cheese round out the entrées.
Due Venti's limited selection of adult beverages relate to the fact they have to make do with a small winemaker's license. This permits them to serve only wine by the glass ($6) from Fenn Valley near Saugatuck. Maybe the Seals' lively seasonings had dulled my palate, but I was surprisingly impressed with the Michigan reds that usually are inferior to our whites. Indeed, Fenn Valley's Nouveau and merlot were competitive with house pours in many other establishments fortunate enough to own a regular liquor license.
The dessert list, which again reflects a complexity of ingredients, is highlighted by a warm apple tart with ricotta, honey and cream-cheese custard laced with caramel sauce and Riesling-infused whipped cream ($8) and a delicate flourless chocolate cake served with house-made mascarpone ice cream that traces its origins to a small Italian village in 1897.
Due Venti's only mild disappointment are the rather ordinary house-made rolls. The skilled servers, such as the personable Jeff, however, are far from ordinary in terms of their attentiveness and knowledge of the bill of fare. They make a significant contribution to the new "220," which deserves kudos for its creativity and authenticity at recession-conscious prices.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.