At Roma Café, Detroit's oldest restaurant, the walls can't talk but third-generation manager Janet Sossi Belcoure can. The consummate hostess, outfitted in a chic black dress and colorful heels, she sips a glass of wine at the end of her long day and tells us story after story about her family's business. A regular customer, who introduces himself simply as "Jack," sits next to her at the bar and chimes in with stories of his own. He says he's been coming to Roma
since he was five years old, and looks to be in his sixties now. It's just that kind of a place.
The restaurant started out as a boarding house around 1888 serving the traveling farmers at Eastern Market. It expanded into a restaurant in 1890, and was sold in 1918 to Belcoure's great uncle, Hector Sossi. Despite it being a family business, Belcoure never planned to work there herself. A successful career woman in the 1970s, she was happy in her chosen field. But as she knocked her head against the proverbial glass ceiling, she realized her potential would always be stifled in the male-dominated business world. It was then that she looked toward the restaurant as a place where she could progress unfettered. She started humbly in the back office, learning the ropes before eventually stepping into the lead role. Belcoure flourished in her new-found career: watching her work, it's clear that she loves the restaurant and her place at the helm.
When we admit that we've never been to the restaurant, Belcoure responds with characteristic hospitality. "You're only a Roma virgin once", she says as she sets down plates piled high with calamari, roasted peppers, mostaccioli marinara and chicken parmigiana, all featured on this spring's Detroit Restaurant Week
menu. First-timers should take a moment to absorb the surroundings: high tin ceilings, a massive carved wooden bar, and tuxedo-bedecked waiters weaving hurriedly about, there's no shortage of ambiance. Once settled in at your table, the menu will be comfortingly familiar even for newcomers. Don't let the lack of checkered tablecloths fool you: the hallmarks of classic Italian-American cuisine are well represented.
As Belcoure continues to regale us with anecdotes, we dig into the spread before us. The fried calamari is perfectly tender thanks to a soak in milk, and has a feather-light, crunchy exterior. Our appetites, although vast, stand no chance against the chicken parmigiana with its golden breading, hearty red sauce and thick blanket of cheese. The Restaurant Week menu offers multiple vegetarian options as well, including the roasted peppers and mostaccioli. The marinara -- a 100 year old family recipe -- is rich and a little sweet, with deep, concentrated flavor that can only come from hours on the stove. The vinegar-marinated peppers are a slightly tart counterpoint to the rich sauce. As we wipe away the crumbs and say our goodbyes, I feel a bit wistful that I've been missing out on this place for years, but am heartened by the knowledge that we'd be welcomed as friends anytime we chose to come back.
Unlike Belcoure, who discovered her passion for the restaurant business almost by accident, Mike Viviano of Angelina Italian Bistro says that opening his own place has been a lifelong dream. Viviano, who worked as a chef for 25 years at various restaurants and country clubs, met co-owner Tom Agosta, another restaurant veteran, through a mutual friend who knew of each man's shared goal. Although neither came from a restaurant family, both grew up watching their Sicilian grandmothers cook and were duly inspired to go into the food business.
Where Roma Café is cozy, dimly lighted and distinctly old-world, Angelina
is a bright, open space, with a large U-shaped bar and floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room that look out onto Grand Circus Park. Formerly the Madison Theater, the last show screened in 1984 and the space sat empty until Viviano and Agosta breathed new life into it in 2007. Warm orange-yellow paint, exposed brick and hardwood floors mingle with a vibrant glass sculpture and a blown-up photo of the old theater to produce a look that's contemporary without trying too hard.
Vibrant and modern describe the bistro's menu as well as its decor. Angelina's cuisine shows a dedication to freshness and quality, with several free-range and organic options on the menu and an effort by the owners to source locally when possible. Viviano tells me that they make these choices not just because customers respond favorably to the idea, but also because the products taste better.
In addition to embracing organic, sustainable and locavore ideals, Angelina's chefs prepare as much of the food as possible from scratch. Like many upscale Italian joints, the pasta is made in-house, but it doesn't stop there. The chefs make most of the charcuterie on the charcuterie platter, as well as pickling the vegetables that accompany the meat. Pride in their craftsmanship is further evidenced by the elegant presentation of the dishes: we dramatically hesitated for a moment to admire them before raising our forks.
If you visit Angelina for Restaurant Week, you'll be confronted with many tempting offerings. For a first course, may I steer you toward the bruschetta? It may sound pedestrian, and in some restaurants it would be, but not here. Goat cheese and a marinated mushroom adorn two toasts; a garlic-laden chickpea puree sits atop two more. Classic tomato-basil (again, no skimping on the garlic) completes the trio, and the plate is garnished with arugula and balsamic reduction. Just make sure to share a bite or two with your date, if you get my drift.
For mains, we tried the brick chicken and the squash ravioli. We confessed to Viviano that we don't typically order chicken breast in restaurants because of its tendency to be dry or boring, but any misgivings were quickly dispelled upon taking a bite. The chicken has a pronounced char-grilled flavor and is served with potatoes and a zingy caponata of squash, tomatoes, olives and chunks of garlic. The squash ravioli is for those with a bit of a sweet tooth. It had a definite dessert-like quality, with toasted almonds and a creamy sauce made with amaretto liqueur. A few sprigs of steamed broccoli rabe garnish the dish, a welcome lean and slightly bitter contrast. Two petite cannoli were brought out for dessert; they were flaky and feather-light as proper cannoli should be, with a hint of cinnamon and garnished with pistachios.
If your meal at Angelina inspires you to get into the kitchen, the restaurant offers Saturday classes on everything from chocolate to charcuterie. In a further bid to engage customers, wine director Ericia Bartels hosts a monthly wine-tasting, where for $20, patrons get three glasses of wine and three small plates of food specially designed to complement them.
More next week after we travel a bit more on the food trail.When not gallivanting around Detroit eating delicious Italian food, Noelle Lothamer pens the food blog Simmer Down!. Say hello to her tonight, March 29, at the Model D Speaker Series on the local food economy.
All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here.
The dining room at Roma Cafe
A tray of pasta carried out in a rush to its diners at Roma Cafe
Roasted Peppers, Calamari and a glass of Sangiovese at Roma Cafe
Bruschetta at Angelina's Bistro
Diners at Angelina's Bistro enjoy the street view of Grand Circus Park
A spin on the Airline Chicken cut at Angelina's Bistro