Vince's in Southwest Detroit: An institution turns 50

Vince's Italian restaurant will turn 50 May 20, celebrating half a century in business in the same Southwest Detroit neighborhood.
At a restaurant like Vince's, that means getting to know a lot of people, easily triple or quadruple the number of years it's operated on Springwells near I-75 between Fort and Vernor.
We're talking politicians, schoolteachers, nurses, doctors, clergy, including top-ranking Catholic clerics who you will hear from here, and generations of families who stay true to this solid, throwback of a restaurant that fits so well with a city like Detroit.
On the one hand, such a long guest list is something to be proud of.
On the other, it puts Vince's operators in a pickle when it comes to deciding how to celebrate the milestone anniversary, says Lidia Improta. She runs the restaurant with her husband Frank, their sons and 80-year-old matriarch Maria Perfili, Vince's co-founder and owner.
"We're still trying to figure out what do to. We could throw a big party, but we don't want to hurt any customers' feelings if someone is left out. We could have specials on food, but is that enough?" Lidia asks. "We have a lot of faithful customers who kept us in business this long. They're not only customers. They've become friends. We want them to be a part of whatever we do, but we're not sure yet what we want to do."
Party logistics tend to stay on the back burner when customers need to be fed and cleaned up after six days a week. But this is about more than any party that may or may not happen.
Vince's anniversary is a nod to its pizza and manicotti, and also a testament to how a business thrives in the same Detroit neighborhood through five decades of up and downs in the city.
Vince's has stayed put all these years because the owners love Detroit, because the building -- which was once their home, too -- is like a part of the family, and because the restaurant's old school style fits Motown so well.
The owners of Vince's, which is located a hop, skip and a jump from the freeway on a rise just past a graffiti-plastered viaduct, never thought of leaving the city even as the presumably greener pastures of the 'burbs beckoned their competitors and neighbors.
"I can't say it never crossed my mind, but where do I move that I don't hurt myself or our customers? We have customers from the east side, the west side, the north side, the south side," Lidia says. "Really the expressway brings everyone here. When you think about it, it's nice to drive a half hour and talk to your partner or your friends.
"We think of ourselves as more a destination now. Before it was just more of a neighborhood place."
Even as Vince's has grown, it has stayed simple, unpretentious.
It is not flashy or trendy or cutting edge. It's what makes Vince's so comfortable and inviting.
That and the food.
The pasta, for years made by hand by Maria, now comes from a pastamaker brought back from Italy. It's easy to tell it did not come from a box. The sauces and the veal remain the handiwork of Lidia and Maria. "My mother is still the matriarch. She is still all hands on everything," Lidia says.

Maria's husband and the restaurant's namesake, Vincenzo, died in 2002. After finding repeat buyers for pizzas among Vincenzo's fellow auto workers at the Cadillac Fleetwood plant, the couple started the restaurant out of their home, the back portion being living quarters, the front quarters being the restaurant.
Eventually the restaurant matured and grew, and they moved into their own home. Today, the grown-up Vince's seats 95 in its dining room and has room for 125 in the banquet room, which is often used as overflow when it's not reserved. There are seldom many open seats on weekends.
Lidia was seven, took orders by phone and translated for her mother when the restaurant opened. Her brother was and is in the business, too.
Mostly, customers came for pizza in the beginning. As time went on, Vince's tried to satisfy the customers' cravings - not necessarily matching the owners. They sold burgers, ribs, french fries. They returned to their Italian roots when customers' palates got progressive.
"As time passed, the world opened up, and people became aware of Italian food the way it was supposed to be. Things just opened up," Lidia recalls. "It kept evolving."
Veal became a menu staple, as did dishes such as Pasta alla Putanesco, Veal alla Tosca and Eggplant Parmigiana.
"When it first started veal wasn't a popular dish. No one knew what polenta was or even artichokes and zucchini," Lidia recalls.
That let the family, especially Maria who longed for her Italian hometown, focus on the food they knew and loved, the specialties they enjoy every year on returns to their Italian hometown 45 minutes south of Rome.
The change created the loyal following, and it has brought many blessings, you could say.
Its fans include one of Catholicism's highest-ranking clerics.
Retired Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a Detroiter who lived many years in Vatican City as a top official for the Catholic church, sends this wish from Rome:
"I have known the Improta family very well for many years. Vince's is truly an authentic Italian restaurant.  I am happy to express my best wishes on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this fine restaurant."
And Archbishop Allen Vigneron, Archdiocese of Detroit, has this to say:
"Like many priests in the Detroit area, I have been blessed over the years to be the beneficiary of the warm hospitality and great food that Maria and her late husband Vince, along with their daughter and son-in-law, Lidia and Frank, offer everyone that comes to dine with them.  I'm proud to call them my friends."
Such wishes are a reminder that the family made the right decision to stay put.
"We've seen things come and go, but thank God my parents had high values and no loans. They've always put everything they made back into the restaurant," Lidia says. "Their hearsts and souls are here. You can't walk away from that."
Kim North Shine is a freelance writer whose favorite meal at Vince's is Pasta Con Piselli. Send feedback here.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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