Saturday, January 31, 2009

Angelina Italian Bistro: The Perfect Eye-talian Place for Detroit

As much as I'd love to take credit for that clever little pronunciation pun, I must dutifully concede credit to Supergay Detroit. When Angelina Italian Bistro opened a mere three months ago, amidst a flurry a local buzzers buzzing, I quite frankly didn't know what to expect. I feared another lackluster "Eye"-talian joint with overpriced, mediocre food in an overly trendy, overly self-important atmosphere. Then I ran into Supergay at the Park Bar one night in October, and he raved about it, calling it an "Eye-talian place for Detroit hipsters."

Though I personally would have replaced the term "hipster" (see: shaggy hair, skinny jeans, Converse shoes, always at the Magic Stick) with "scenester" (your everyday semi-affluent+ Detroit know-it-all; spends a lot of time at Park Bar and Proof), the message was the same: I needed to check out Angelina.

And so I did. Once. Twice. Again and again. I liked it so much I spent New Year's Eve there. I returned again for a 50-person supper club last week. I've become familiar with one of the owners, Tom Agosta, as well as servers Vince (whom I knew from Enoteca and Atlas Global Bistro) and Remi (who had an uncanny recollection from a time I went there for lunch back in November). I don't simply enjoy the place; it has become my new favorite Detroit restaurant, not only for the food and drink but for the ambiance and hospitality.

Occupying the space that was once the old Madison Theatre in Grand Circus Park, the restaurant is not only in a prime location in the cultural center of the city, but it is also a rather nostalgic place for many of its patrons who remember seeing films in the old theatre before it closed its doors in 1984 (I've heard stories of first dates and first cinema experiences from a number of fellow diners happily reminiscing). The space sat empty for many years but, after some by-no-means minor difficulties, the current owners were able to secure this prime property and transformed it into the casually chic, inviting dining spot in the epicenter of Detroit's social scene. All that remains of the Madison Theatre is the marquis, which now boasts the name "Angelina." And Detroit should be happy to have it.

Even in these trying economic times, there have been no shortages of restaurants opening in the city recently. Each offer their own unique vision and flair, but not all of them really nail the essence of Detroit. Some are truly great, and would be truly great perhaps in another city in another state (Spa 19 24 Grille comes to mind here), or maybe just at another time. But where many of these new places miss the mark, Angelina Italian Bistro gets it right on all counts.

After speaking a little about the business with co-owner Agosta, I learned more about the concept behind the restaurant. Partners Tom and Mike both come from families with grandparents hailing from the Old Country--Sicily, in this case. Both grew up with Grandma in the kitchen making fresh pastas and sauces on a daily basis, and both wanted to bring a little of that home-cooked, authentic Mediterranean flavor to their own restaurant after decades of studying and working in other establishments. Between them they have millions of dollars in restaurant experience, but this is a first venture for both.

They wanted to create a place that would suit Detroit--a place that offers excellent food at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere, where they could share their vision and their skills in a way Detroiters could appreciate. The décor is pure Detroit, with exposed brick walls, exposed airducts in the ceiling, and one wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. It's got that trendy urban loft feel tempered by a spacious, glossy wood bar and soft, warm lighting. And when you do stop by, make sure you ask about the pièce de résistance hanging in the corner, a boldly-colored sculpture of handblown glass.

What Mike and Tom ultimately created was a restaurant that is the right place at the right time for Detroit. Since the day it opened it has attracted crowds of theatre-goers and Detroit social scenesters alike, and it is often crowded to near-capacity around game times, concerts, and other downtown events. It's also in the best location imaginable, being centrally located to all the sports arenas, theatres, concert venues, and other bars and highly visible from Woodward Avenue. The look, the location, the vibe, and the crowd is all right...and so is the food.

Specializing in southern Italian cuisine with a Mediterranean flair, Executive Chef Joel Vassallo has created a menu which highlights the various flavors of the proprietors' families' homeland. Sicilian cuisine is a bit different from the traditional understanding of "Italian" food, and exhibits traces of all of the various cultures that have established roots on the island. It is as much influenced by the mainland as it is by the nearby Greek islands and Arab countries, and thus is also heavy on use of chick peas, kalamata olives, fresh fish, pine nuts, and couscous (all ingredients that appear regularly throughout Angelina's menu). And so it is you'll begin your meal with a generous portion of warm sourdough bread with accompaniments of olive oil, sweet cream butter, and Italian white bean "hummous."

As I've already stated, I've been here a few times, and with each visit I find a new dish to fall in love with. Where do I start? Perhaps with the starters.

The Antipasti menu is a selection of house-smoked and house-cured fish and meats, as well as marinated and pickled vegetables, all served with marinated olives, arugula, whole grain mustard and Pecorino Romano. This is a solid start to any authentic Italian meal, echoing the experience of being served in a small Sicilian eatery in which they don't even allow you menus.

The "Tasting Plates" offer a more common understanding of a four-course meal, with appetizers that speak towards more American appetites. The Bruschetta Trio--with classic tomato basil as well as marinated Portabella mushrooms and toasted chick peas--is a nice sampling of different flavors which represent well the different culinary traditions that inform the menu. There are three different appetizer pizzas to choose from (enough for a meal for one or to share with a group), including the Braised Pork Shoulder Pizza with mushrooms, arugula, and Parmesan Reggiano with classic sauce that I just simply could not resist on my first visit. The pork was tender, the pizza dough itself crispy and cracker-like, which is more similar to the pizza one would find throughout all regions of Italy than the pizza one finds in America.

The Kalamata Pizza, made with kalamata olive tapenade, tomatoes, caramelized onion, and blended cheese is a perfect balance of highly salty and slightly sweet. The real standout here, though, is the Crispy Calamari--calamari steaks cut into strips and lightly breaded and fried, served with a "Carmelo" dipping sauce. The calamari is seasoned to absolute perfection, each bite filled with flavor, which the champagne butter sauce only enhances. I must say, without hesitation, that this is simply the best calamari I've ever tasted, and would recommend this as a must for anyone who dines here.

Angelina offers a variety of soups, salads, and sandwiches (lunch only), though all entrees are served with their House Salad, which consists of simple organic field greens, red onions, toasted pine nuts, gorgonzola, and herb vinaigrette dressing. The salad is light and flavorful, a nice second course to ramp up your appetite for the main event. On a casual lunch trip, I found the Italian Panini--made with salami, coppa, mortadella, pepperonata, and buffalo mozzarella--extremely heavy, and would recommend to other lunch diners they stick with the lunch portion of Angelina's house-made fresh pastas.

Pasta--Italian cuisine is nothing without it. The house-made pastas are made fresh from scratch daily in the kitchen--nothing is ever from a box or frozen. The freshness is most obvious is the shapes of the pastas themselves--perhaps a little bumpy, not quite fully even or consistent in shape, the tell-tale signs of a true homemade pasta. The pasta is always prepared to perfection, with a flawless balance of tender yet firm noodles expertly complimented with simple, flavorful homemade sauces and choice ingredients. The classic Parppardelle Bolognese, made with classic meat sauce and Parmesan Reggiano, is a deceptively simple dish that explodes with well-balanced flavor. The pasta here also has its chance to shine, decorated only with a richly flavored meat sauce and cheese accents. It might be the most "boring," but it's my hands-down favorite.

The Little Neck Clam and Linguine is also a fine choice, made with a light olive oil and garlic sauce, pancetta, mushrooms, spinach, and clams in-shell. The clams are cooked well and blessedly free of grit, but again--it is the pasta that shines here, and the strips of salty pancetta add a nice contrast to the bitterness of the clams and spinach and the otherwise mild sauce.

The Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli is soft and pillowy, slightly sweet with a buttery sauce accented with Amaretto, toasted almonds, and rapini.

On another trip I decided to be a little more daring and sampled the Carmelized Onion and Gorgonzola Strucolo I had been eyeing. Served with potato hash, wild mushroom, and grilled fennel and cooked into a crisp, flaky phylo dough, I quickly remembered that I don't much care for onions and realized that a dish with predominant onion flavor might not be the one for me. The cubed potaotes lightly fried in olive oil with garlic in parsley were delicious, though; I wouldn't mind an order of just these for breakfast.

I rarely save room for dessert, but I have sampled several of those at Angelina. The Tiramisu--espresso-soaked ladyfingers with mascarpone and cocoa--is classic, though not breaking any new ground. The Apple Tart, with Michigan apples and calvados caramel sauce served with vanilla ice cream, is another classic and done well here, though again, not earth-shattering. A new menu item which just debuted last week is the Cheesecake (made with half ricotta and half cream cheese) in an Orange Anisette sauce, and though the cheesecake was perfectly creamy and decadent, the anisette sauce (with slight hints of black licorice) killed it for me. The Spiced Pumpkin Bread Pudding, made with pumpkin custard and crème anglais, is absolutely wonderful. It is moist and rich, full of comforting autumnal spices like cinammon and nutmeg and cardamon, and the generous dollop of crème anglais is a cold and creamy contrast to the warm and spicy bread pudding it tops.

The wine list at Angelina is modest yet full of handsome choices from all over Italy, Argentina, and even a smattering of Michigan, with most priced very affordably at $35.00 and below (the Solterra Carmenere Reserve is a value at $6.00/glass and $21.00/bottle). They also offer a wide selection of Detroit-brewed craft beers on tap, and carry my very own favorite Young's Double Chocolate Stout by the bottle. The teeny-tiny martini list is a wallop of creative cocktailing: the Guiness Espress Martini is my new favorite drink of choice, made with triple espresso vodka, sweet vanilla, and Guiness, and tastes like heaven in a glass. The GreenTeani tastes like a slightly sweet alcoholic green tea, and no more can be said about that.

Have I tempted your tastebuds yet? Angelina is a perfect destination, whether it be for a night out with friends, cocktails after work, dinner with a date, or drinks before a show. It has the best of everything you could possibly desire in a Detroit dining destination, including location, location, location. I cannot possibly recommend it enough or emphasize just how much I feel that this is the ideal spot for Detroit right here, right now. Service with a smile, friendly and inviting, stylish and contemporary, and with incredible food, Angelina Italian Bistro is The One. The rest are simply what remains.

Angelina Italian Bistro is located at 1565 Broadway, 313-962-1355. Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 11:00AM-10:00PM; Fri.-Sat. 11:00AM-midnight; Sun. 11:00AM-8:00PM; closed Mondays.