Dine in the D: Trattoria Da Luigi
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Posted: Jul 14, 2014 4:08 PM EDT Updated: Jul 14, 2014 4:08 PM EDT
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Honest and Well-Done
Royal Oak’s Trattoria Da Luigi isn’t glamorous — just rustic, lovable…and marvelous
On a mid-January evening, the outside temperature gauge in the car is reading minus 4. Royal Oak’s streets, usually lively, are empty. The biting cold causes steamy rivulets inside a storefront window, pooling at the base into a growing ice formation.
The brief walk to the restaurant, an easy block and a half on any other day, feels interminable.
Inside, the truly daring are gathering, shedding scarves and mittens and greeting strangers with the kind of smiles usually reserved for comrades who have arrived safely on the trek to Ice Station Zebra.
Once beyond a barrier blast of warm air, the glowing smile of Luigi Cutraro, a sheaf of menus in hand, welcomes visitors to his Trattoria Da Luigi.
This is Cutraro’s new little place, designed by ar-chitect Jeff Fontana. It has an almost amateur feel— in a good way — of a corner restaurant put together lovingly by friends and family with some skill in masonry and a penchant for rustic Italian design. Half-round terra cotta roofing tiles decorate the overhangs to the kitchen and over the bar.
Cutraro is a fixture around Royal Oak. For 14 years, he owned the tapas bar Sangria, which he sold in 2013, along with The Sky Club nightclub.
“I’ve actually been wanting to do this for many, many years,” says Cutraro, who opened the restaurant in September. “The basic menu is very, very tra-ditional, yes,” he adds. “Where we depart from that is in the daily selections.”
But there are also several dishes not often seen around Detroit: Rigatoni alla Norma (topped with eggplant and ricotta salata) and the traditional Pappardelle con Marsala e Funghi, for example.
Trattoria Da Luigi offers honest and well-done dining of the kind worthy of a spot on anyone’s list of regular choices. It’s not glamorous; it’s just a place were you can happily nestle into its warmth and find some very good, traditional Italian cuisine.
The great French master chef Paul Bocuse said you should never trust a skinny chef because “this is a man who does not like his own cooking.” If Bocuse ever had a reason to visit Detroit, he would find his pronouncement alive and well in the form of a generously girthed and well-rounded young chef named Steve Siekierzynski. He declines to reveal his weight, but certainly appears to be one who enjoys his own cooking. And he prepares marvelous traditional Italian dishes.
Take the first course of grilled polenta topped with Asiago cheese and dressed with a little tomato sauce. There is nothing outwardly unusual about it. But where this one swerves is in the density and the preparation of the sauce, as well as a restraint rather than over-meddling in the cooking. Leaving it largely alone at a particular point allows it a burst and balance between sweetness and acidity, which makes the dish come together.
A burrata made of superbly fresh and light fluffy mozzarella served with eggplant and squash compote and pine nuts is also well worth trying.
Trattoria Da Luigi also has a pizza oven overseen by a pizza chef. The selections are traditional Italian pizza. No choices of ingredients, no weird stuff like pineapple or marshmallow, Cutraro says insistently.
In pastas, the house-made gnocchi is exquisite. Again lightness is the key. Gnocchi are cooked so fast but gently; they arrive almost at the melt-when-they-hit-your mouth stage, dressed in a delicate cheese sauce with crumbled bits of Italian sausage.
Siekierzynski is a graduate
of the culinary program at Schoolcraft College. He previously cooked at Greektown Casino, 220 Merrill in Birmingham, and the long-go
ne Ernesto’s in Northville.
Our table was also impressed with Siekierzynski’s veal Saltimbocca, most of all for its delicate saucing.
One of the real standouts at Luigi — it just about leaps off the table — is a Sicilian salad made of orange slices and mixed with goat cheese, diced onion, and olive oil. If beauty lies in simplicity, then here it is. The combination of sweetness and acidity from the orange playing against the onion and oil and bonded by the goat cheese is ridiculously simple, but a superb combination — a salad I would eat anytime.
The only oddity, and it’s a small one, was that the butter arrived at the table in a dish incongruous for a place where much love and care goes into everything else: It was in one of those little plastic cups that nurses use to dispense pills.
On Sunday evenings, Trattoria Da Luigi takes on a different mood, when a small area is cleared for en-tertainment. The sounds of Latin jazz and old standards waft from the eight-string guitar of Michele Ramo and the voice of singer Heidi Hepler.
Trattoria Da Luigi hits all the high notes. You are well-fed. You get great service. And you leave talking about coming back another time.
The rustic farmhouse décor by Fontana might be described as Mt. Vesuvius meets Royal Oak. Fontana has created it out of a modern glass storefront with the usual open ceiling across which travel heat and air conditioning ductwork and electrical and plumbing lines. But it certainly works, emitting the theme of a villa that suffered the fury of the volcano many years ago and the partly singed faux stone walls and roofing tiles.
To distract the eye from the modern utility lines, light bulbs have been strung intentionally haphazard on open wiring crisscrossing the room, giving it the feel of the lighting you get everywhere on outdoor terraces in Italy — festive as much as ambient.
A squat, five-seat L-shaped bar sits to one side of the dining room, with shelving that displays wines from Cutraro’s native Italy, along with the standard run of bar offerings.
Hand-hewn faux wood beams and crossbeams meet stone block half walls, and roughly stuccoed pillars and walls add more rusticity.
The tables are the standard four-tops, set in peach and tan cloths, with rolled green napkins standing festively straight up in water glasses at each place setting. Votive candles add atmosphere at each table.
Trattoria Da Luigi is quite lovable, and its Italian comfort food menu and service are exceptional. And that’s what makes a good restaurant, and for us a worthwhile new find. Try it.
415 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-542-4444.
Trattoria Pizzeria da Luigi
Published: November 5, 2013
Trattoria Pizzeria da Luigi
415 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak
Open 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday
4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Luigi Cutraro says his new menu is “built upon thousands of years of eating” — a lovely thought and surely one reason Italian cuisine is universally beloved, and deservedly so.
Yes, the tomato was introduced into the peninsula only when explorers brought it back from the New World, and tomato sauce wasn’t known there till the late 18th century. So, it’s been only 200-plus years of eating the food item that Americans associate most strongly with Italy. No matter: 200 years has been plenty of time for Italian chefs and casalingas to perfect tomato cookery; and there’s a hell of a lot more to Italian food than tomato sauce.
Those two-plus centuries of expertise and variety are on display at Cutraro’s trattoria, a thoroughly enjoyable place for atmosphere, service and its dishes. The room is relatively small, which helps the buzz, and although it’s a little loud, the decibel level makes it feel convivial and fun. The bright linens make you feel like someone has been paying good attention to pleasing the customer. The quality of chef Steve Siekierzynski’s fare is on a par with places that charge a lot more, including his former employer, Assaggi Bistro in Ferndale.
Cutraro took a long detour into Spanish food when he owned Sangria, also in Royal Oak. “Spanish, I had a great time for 16 years, but my roots, you know, …” he explains. He calls the new place Italian with a Sicilian accent and points out the Sicilian dialect on the bathroom doors.
It would be hard to pick a favorite dish, but I’ll start with the first one I tasted: the insalata Siciliana, which gives every appearance of being extremely simple, and contains orange slices (Cutraro: “Sicily is the Florida of Europe”), red onion, goat cheese and olive oil. Think: sweet and tart, biting and creamy — in perfect proportions.
Equally inviting as a starter is calamari with lemon and banana peppers, at al dente perfection; drenched in lemony butter, some bites are hot and some not.
Baby octopus with chick peas (ceci) and arugula is another special appetizer that’s more redolent of the sea, with some whole chickpeas and some puréed as a sauce.
It wasn’t on purpose, but in two visits neither of the parties I was with tasted tomato sauce. It’s there, on many of the pizzas and some of the pastas, but the secondi piatti tend toward seafood and chops. We enjoyed whitefish topped with a thick tomato compote and a zuppa di pesce, chock full of tiny scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari. The best seafood dish, though, was the lobster ravioli with saffron, in a mild cream sauce that lets you taste the lobster.
Another night I ordered braciola di maiale Valdostana — three pork cutlets pounded thin and rolled with prosciutto and fontina. It’s very rich, as you might expect with two types of pork, and the creaminess of the cheese is a bonus. The three rolls may look small in scale, but together with a crisp-edged polenta and lots of luscious sauce, they’re plenty.
Thin pizzas include a Nutella with strawberries and the Americana (yes, with pepperoni. This is the only pizza in which the mozzarella is supermarket-style rather than fresh, and my imagination has it on the menu grudgingly — except that Cutraro is too welcoming to begrudge a guest anything).
We tried the Pizza alla Saad, which uses sun-dried tomatoes in addition to San Marzano tomato sauce — the tomatoes’ sweetness perfect with salty black olives. And “Pizza Pear” just barely cooks the pear slices and pairs them with their traditional partner, Gorgonzola.
I am amazed that I came away without ordering pasta, as no one likes the mouth-feel of pasta more than I do. It was just that everything else looked so good too. Cutraro recommends the lasagne with grilled eggplant, peas and eggs or the pappardelle with Marsala and mushrooms. I’ve got my eye on the rigatoni alla Norma, also with grilled eggplant, and there is spaghetti with a simple tomato-basil sauce for the timorous.
Desserts include chocolate cake, tiramisu and a pineapple with Chantilly cream, or an assortment of cheeses chosen by Siekierzynski. We loved a chocolate semifreddo — half-frozen mousse studded with pistachios and chocolate bits — and a vanilla cheesecake wrapped in pistachios. Don’t mistake this cheesecake for New York-style, which is tarter; in this one, the vanilla smooths out the edges and makes it feel richer.
Perhaps my favorite find of all was a new vino rosso to love: Zabu Nero d’Avola from Sicily, Cutraro’s most popular, just $29 a bottle. It’s full of the brightness that characterizes the whole da Luigi project.
A final word: In a blog not long ago, I griped about restaurants that don’t tell you the prices of specials. Not a problem here. They can roll trippingly off your server’s tongue, I promise.
City of Royal Oak and the Chamber of Commerce for giving the prestige’s award of the 2013 City of Royal Oak’s Beatification Award to Trattoria Pizzeria Da Luigi
CAV LUIGI CUTRARO
Imagine having a real Italian meal in an intimate setting, with a trendy (for the record, trendy oftentimes does not mean “fusion” or “of the moment” and is not always pretentious) cuisine and experiencing what it means to truly be served a meal and experience what dining out really stands for.
Trattoria Pizzeria Da Luigi has been open for a short time (less than two months), but the wealth of culinary knowledge and dining experience at the small Royal Oak restaurant is truly unsurpassed. This isn’t your standard Italian restaurant, specializing in lasagna and spaghetti with jarred meat sauce or salty and boring fettucini alfredo. This is “an Italian restaurant with a Sicilian accent,” as owner and proprietor Luigi Cutraro fondly describes it. It is a true experience in dining out, versus what most of us Americans think going out to dinner means – eating out. There is more to a meal than feeding your belly. One conversation with Cutraro, and it’s more than obvious that he knows the difference between visiting a restaurant for a meal and sitting down to enjoy the finely-crafted and storied foods of a culture – plus the comfort and companionship of friends and/or an establishment that really cares about your experience.
Only the finest ingredients go into each dish at Luigi’s. For instance, every Italian restaurant has a zuppa di pesce (seafood pasta) entrée. Luigi’s has flavorful and delicious clams, mussels, generous cuts of calamari, scallops and shrimp all nestled with a subtle blend of olive oil/white wine, garlic and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s angelic – really. Topping even that heavenly combination, though, is the pappardelle con marsala e funghi. It’s a papparedlle pasta (think thin, flat noodles), topped with Sicilian marsala sauce and seasonal mushrooms. You don’t even have to be a mushroom fan to appreciate how classic and delicious this dish is.
Even the rigatoni alla norma is incredible. Grilled eggplant and ricotta over pasta? Hell, I’ve made that with eggplants from my home garden before – BUT NOT LIKE THIS. Thin slices of eggplant with just the right amount of cheese and perfectly-cooked rigatoni, that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Now let’s talk dessert. Do you know what semifreddo is? Neither did I. It is pretty much like when ice cream hits that ideal spot where it’s just soft enough to not bend your spoon, but not melty and soupy. A semi-frozen chocolate mousse with pistachio pieces and a berry sauce, this is the most perfect and light treat to end an astonishing meal with.
Authentic Italian is main draw for Royal Oak’s Trattoria Pizzeria da Luigi
When Luigi Cutraro closed his long-running Sangria Tapas Café early this year, he was quoted as saying he intended to open a small, cozy Italian restaurant.
Statements like that are often empty promises. Not so with Cutraro. He has done just what he said, debuting his rustic Trattoria Pizzeria da Luigi just a few blocks from the Sangria location in downtown Royal Oak. It took over the space that briefly housed Antica Pizzeria Fellini, and that’s part of why the new spot is not called simply Trattoria da Luigi. The wood-burning brick oven in one corner of the dining room, the only thing left from the previous regime, made pizza almost inevitable.
Executive chef Steve Siekierzynski pulls a pizza from the wood-burning oven. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)The rest of the space has been completely redone. It’s a romantic setting with scenic murals, strings of vintage filament light bulbs overhead adding a festive garden party feeling to the rustic brick and wood-bedecked room with linen-covered tables, multicolored napkins adding a splash of color and tiny bar tucked into one corner.
Pizzas made with San Marzano tomato sauce and such toppings as baby arugula, prosciutto di Parma, artichokes and grilled eggplant are well worth ordering; however, there is much more on the solidly Italian menu with listings for antipasti, insalate, primi and secondi , and dolci. The latter include include a selection of cheeses — a nice touch that underscores Cutraro’s intent to stay true to his Sicilian roots. Also on the dolci list: caffe affogato, espresso poured over vanilla ice cream, a real delight.
But first things first: Antipasti include, of , an array of salami including capocollo, prosciutto and mortadella along with cheese and olives; bruschetta, toasted Italian bread in three styles — topped with olive tapenade, the assertive Sicilian relish caponata or simply chopped tomatoes atop the crusty bread.
The pastas are listed as first courses, meaning they are served in relatively discreet portions, leading up to the solid second-course dishes. Especially recommended: the pappardelle con Marsala e funghi, wide ribbons of pasta in a lightly applied mushroom and Marsala sauce. Second courses include marinated and grilled lamb chops with roasted fingerling potatoes, the classic saltimbocca alla Romana, thinly sliced veal with prosciutto, sage and white wine, and pork cutlet (braciola) rolled with fontina cheese and prosciutto and paired with polenta. Adding a local touch is the baked Lake Superior whitefish with tomato compote and basil oil. There is no law that says diners must order from all the sections, of course.
Certainly worth noting is the moderate price structure, especially given the quality of the food. Lamb chops are the most expensive entrée at $24, with most of the others less than $20.
The wine list is equally affordable and completely Italian, but Cutraro says he has decided to add a few California wines to the list.
Behind the scenes in the newly installed kitchen is the well-traveled Steve Siekierzynski, whose resume includes Assaggi Mediterranean Bistro, La Dolce Vita and the Garage Grill, and he is a talented and enthusiastic chef.
Unpretentious and likable, this new destination has the potential to become a Royal Oak favorite.
Trattoria Pizzeria da Luigi
415 S. Washington, Royal Oak
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
Hours: Dinner only 4-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. and Sun., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Mon.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$13, pizzas $7.50-$13.50, salads $4-$14, pastas $13-$15, entrees $15-$24, desserts $4.50-$7
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar and an Italian wine list
Noise level: Subdued
Parking: Street or nearby structure
Wheelchair access: No barriers
Trattoria da Luigi Sets Up in Royal Oak
Luigi Cutraro brings authentic Italian cuisine to your table in downtown Royal Oak.
There’s eating out and then there is dining, according to Luigi Cutraro.
Cutraro is the owner of Trattoria da Luigi, which opened about three weeks ago at 415 S. Washington in downtown Royal Oak.
“Eating out happens quickly. Dining, on the other hand, is just as much about culture as it is about food — and it takes time,” said Cutraro.
Cutraro, who hails from Sicily, is serious about culture. He’s just as eager to explain with gusto the history of Mount Etna (Sicily’s greatest volcano) or details of his latest phone conversation with his mother, who still lives in Italy, as he is to talk about the menu.
“I will call my mother and say how do you make this? And she’ll tell me how to make it for six people and then we have to figure out how to make it for 80 people,” he said. “As I get older, little details matter more and more to me, so when I talk to her, I really listen.”
Cutratro’s rich Sicilian background can be seen and tasted in everything he does. Patch could describe the interior of the restaurant, but we won’t. Ask Cutraro about it when you visit and you will get a treat just as delicious as the Semifreddo al Cioccolato on the menu.
Speaking of the menu, it is not your typical lasagna, ziti and baked pasta, Cutratro said.
Cutraro, who owned Sangria and The Sky Club for 14 years and was Royal Oak’s Business of the Year in 2009, is working with Chef Steve Siekierzynski to deliver a menu with a Sicilian twist.
“For example bruschetta — we don’t do just a straight up bread with tomatoes,” Siekierzynski said. “We do a trio with chopped tomatoes, olive tapenade and caponata.”
The menu includes primi (first course) items such as rigatoni topped with grilled eggplant, gnocchi with Italian sausage and spaghetti with capers, anchovies and black olives.
Secondi (second course) items include veal scaloppini with prosciutto, rolled pork cutlet stuffed with fontina cheese and spaghetti with fresh clams, mussels, calamari, scallops and shrimp in olive oil, white wine, garlic and San Marzano tomatoes.
Prices for first course items range from $11 to $15; second course from $15 to $24.
Guests will also find antipasti, salads, pizza (made in a wood burning oven) and dolchi or sweets.
If you go
Where: Trattoria da Luigi, 415 S. Washington Ave.
Sunday: 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Tuesday: 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday: 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Thursday: 4 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Friday: 4 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Saturday: 4 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.