Friday, February 8, 2013

[edibleWOW] Café Cortina

This story originally published in edibleWOW.

Café Cortina has been open since 1976 and is easily one of the most celebrated restaurants in metro Detroit, having been recognized by both local and national publications numerous times for their excellence on all levels. One entire wall of the corridor leading to the stunning stone courtyard is adorned with various newspaper and magazine clippings with glowing reviews proclaiming “Restaurant of the Year” and “Best of Detroit” (as well as recognition from Zagat, Wine Spectator and the Food Network), along with shots of various celebrities who have dined there over the years. But Director of Operations Adrian Tonon (son of owner Rina) remains quite humble about all of it. “The national accolades and awards are an honor to receive,” he says. “We’ve been applauded by media all over the world, but at Café Cortina there is no such thing as success; there are only moments of success and then we strive for the next one, to supersede our last performance.”

Situated in a somewhat far-flung location in Farmington Hills on 10 Mile Rd. just east of Orchard Lake Rd., Café Cortina takes a bit of effort on the part of the patron to get to – this isn’t the kind of place you would just happen to drive by. In the original plans for the construction of I-696, it was supposed to run along 10 Mile Rd., which would have made Café Cortina an easy exit from the freeway. But due to some financing issues the project was moved north to 12 Mile Rd. “My parents put their life savings into it,” Tonon explains. “They had no choice but to move forward with it.”

An outdoor wedding party.
30 years later it is clear they made the right choice. “We would not be a culinary destination if it wasn’t for where our location is,” says Tonon. “You have to do something special for people to come this way. We’re a destination restaurant like so many in Italy.” They have expanded continuously over the last three decades, adding more dining space and a beautiful outdoor courtyard made of stone and covered in crawling ivy. They are a favorite location for weddings and parties, and continue to offer the same excellent food and service that has made them such a major (if understated) player in Detroit’s dining scene for so long. “We never rest on our laurels. We were gardening in 1976 when we were made fun of for having an herb and tomato garden out back.” What a difference 30 years makes.

Café Cortina continues to stay relevant because they strive to keep the restaurant and experience very boutique and artisanal. Executive Chef “Hoffa” (Jeffrey Hoffman) has been with them for 14 years. He is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and worked under the infamous Jimmy Schmidt for many years. The Tonons often send him to Italy (where they still retain their strong connections to friends and family) to work in different kitchens and train in traditional and contemporary Italian cuisine. “Hoffa’s the kind of chef who just wants to cook,” says Tonon. “We’ve had some great times and done some incredible things together. He’s really simple and all about food; he doesn’t need the accolades.”

That same sense of modesty and humility permeates all aspects of Café Cortina, from the servers who have been here 10 and 20+ years to Tonon himself. They truly care about the customer experience above all else. “We take serving others very seriously,” Tonon says. “We feel very fortunate in life to be able to create moments of happiness in other people’s lives. Hospitality is very important to us.”

The cuisine is very simple, hearty, traditional Italian food exquisitely done. “We are very true to what Italian cooking is,” notes Tonon. “We’re not reinventing anything here. We have a modern day presentation but this is still what you would get on the table in Italy 150 years ago.” Their menu is heavily influenced by the seasons. In the summer about 70% of their produce comes from their own garden and the rest is sourced from Michigan farms; this is especially noteworthy considering they’ve been doing it this way for 30 years now.

As a traditional Italian restaurant, they also bring in prosciutto from Parma, mozzarella from Campania, even certain kinds of tomatoes grown in Italian lava rock. “We source where the best products in the world come from. We want the best of the world’s products. If it’s not from Italy it’s usually from Michigan or California.” Everything is made in-house from scratch, including their pastas that are made with a special flour that comes from Italy and pastries made by their own pastry chef, Chef Hoffa’s wife.

Equally as important as the food itself is their commitment to the community. “We’re very community-based and outreach-based,” Tonon says. “Giving back is very important to us.” Tonon is very involved with local philanthropic organizations and takes his social responsibility (and that of the restaurant’s) very seriously. The Adrian Tonon Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization and an extension of Café Cortina that seeks to find would-be philanthropists who might not have the financial ability to donate funds but can donate specialized skills and connect them with organizations in need of those skills. This past June, Café Cortina also hosted the first Yelp Helps event in Michigan, where 16 nonprofit organizations were brought under one roof.

“[We ask ourselves] ‘How do we start a movement to help others and for others to help others?’” Tonon explains. “We as chefs, restaurateurs, and foodies need to create that awareness of ‘we can help.’ Food brings people together. Breaking bread is one of the most powerful things in life.”