by Mel Small
Brothers Frank and Tony Shushtari, who along with partners run Alfoccino restaurants in Farmington Hills and Auburn Hills, struck out on their own last October when they opened Loccino in the structure that housed the Palm at Crooks Road just north of I-75. They employed the ubiquitous Ron Rea to design a smashing new interior marked by unique crystal light fixtures and sconces, sparkling wooden floors, textured sound-muffling hangings and a whimsical series of Botero paintings.
Although Loccino, which seats 275, is far more attractive than its pricey but staid predecessor, it is also far more accessible as most entrées come in at under $20. Despite its relative elegance, the bistro is, as the owners claim, "family casual," with prices comparable to those at Alfoccino. Loccino's menu and wine list, however, are more sophisticated than those of its cousins.
The name Loccino is an artificial one. The Shushtaris originally named their Alfoccinos after a restaurant in Rome. Loccino uses most but not all of Alfoccino's letters to express its familial link to the simpler restaurants as well as its individuality.
Chef Jun, who worked at Lelli's and La Dolce Vita, presides over the kitchen, which covers most of the Italian bases with a slight overemphasis on creamy sauces and breaded dishes. On the other hand, his splendid warm, house-made foccacia is lighter than most.
Jun's substantial appetizer sampler ($15.95), which will satisfy at least four diners, is a mixed bag. The complex portobello with provolone, shrimp, crab, spinach and lemon-wine sauce is the winner here over the thickly breaded calamari and the comparably breaded, if more distinctive, crunchy roasted ravioli. Jun's gentler touch is evident in the overflowing bowl of steamed mussels enhanced by a subtle garlic-zinfandel sauce and tricolor peppers ($8.50). Baked spinach and artichoke dip, asparagus with wasabi dressing, and filet mignon bites are among other starters that stretch beyond the Italian repertoire.
The mains come with a nicely dressed iceberg house salad, which, alas, includes a chunk of not-in-season tomato. Splurge and pay an extra buck for well-crafted Caesar or Greek salads.
The chicken and veal preparations appear in comparable guises with veal $3 more than chicken. Loccino's chicken piccata with capers and mushrooms in a delicate lemon-wine sauce merits the local award it has won. Somewhat busier, the ample and tender portion of veal served Florentine style with spinach, plum tomatoes and mushrooms is a steal at $17.50. Chicken and eggplant Parmigiana, veal Marsala, and veal Corpus Christi with shrimp and crab in a sherry cream sauce round out the Italian Di Cucina section of the menu.
But there is more Italian cuisine under the Pasta Di Casa rubric such as frutti de mare consisting of shrimps, scallops and mussels, over linguini in a surprising lemon-cream sauce. Traditionalists can have it tossed with marinara. Other pastas include old favorites spaghetti Bolognese, ravioli, tortellini, and a hearty combo platter of chicken parmesan, lasagna and fettucini Alfredo.
Reflecting again the geographic breadth of this presumably Italian bistro, Jun works up an accomplished broiled salmon Oscar topped with asparagus and crabmeat swimming in a lobster cream sauce. And instead of a pasta side, this main comes with rice. Baked parmesan-encrusted whitefish and sea bass with plum tomatoes and red onions in olive oil with garlic, basil and balsamic vinegar reflect better the bistro's Mediterranean roots.
That is the case as well with the six flat pizzas that range from a simple Margherita to a crisp seafood pie ($12.50) topped with shrimp, crab, spinach, tomatoes and mozzarella. On the other hand, spare ribs with barbecue sauce and fries and a Black Angus burger ($8.95) share the grilled specialties with Venetian chicken and provolone on a roll and Roman chicken adorned with grilled tomatoes and vegetables ($15.95).
Culinary ethnic schizophrenia continues at the beef section of the menu with filet mignon with garlic mashed and zip sauce ($25.95 but $19.95 on Thursdays) competing with the most expensive main, tournedos with shrimp, portabella mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a sweet vermouth cream sauce, all of which rests on a mound of garlic mashed potatoes ($30.95).
Loccino's intelligent wine list covers both the Old and New World with a handful of interesting bottles for under $30. On Mondays, all wine is sold at 50 percent off.
An outside purveyor provides desserts exclusively to Loccino with its vaunted New York Lindy's style cheesecake a bit dry. The warm chocolate bundt with cool ice cream is a better bet.
Loccino is a welcome addition to the unusually large array of Italian restaurants in Troy. Boasting one of the more lovely settings in the area, its kitchen displays a good deal of versatility as it covers the Mediterranean and beyond.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.