What makes for a great restaurant? Delicious food and memorable service are prerequisites, but there’s so much more.
By R.J. King
When Nino and Liz Cutraro acquired Bella Piatti in downtown Birmingham in late 2012, they turned to Jeff Fontana Designs in Royal Oak to redo the dining room. They also redesigned the kitchen to make it more efficient. When the restaurant reopened in February 2013 following six weeks of work, patrons trickled in at first before growing to a steady stream. Today, dinner reservations are all but mandatory, especially Thursday through Saturday (the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays).
The cast of diners includes all manner of doctors, lawyers, and professionals as well as numerous guests from the Townsend Hotel across the street, including actor Mark Wahlberg (he and his family dined at Bella Piatti five nights in a row last summer when he was in town filming Transformers 4), the Beach Boys, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, producer and director Michael Bay, and new Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his family.
“I wasn’t looking to get back in the restaurant business, but Liz really wanted to do a restaurant,” says Cutraro, a native of Sicily who immigrated to Detroit to work for his uncle when I-696 was under construction 30 years ago. He went on to open and operate Taboo, a nightclub along Detroit’s east riverfront district that operated from 1985 to 1994 and attracted such stars as Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. During the 1990s, he operated Metropolitan Music Cafes in Royal Oak, Farmington, Wyandotte, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as the Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill in downtown Pontiac.
“I have a successful fire restoration company, so I wasn’t looking to get back in the restaurant business, but everything worked here,” Cutraro says. “It’s the best location I’ve ever had, we have been able to hire people with great credentials, and we made the right choice and didn’t try to redesign the interior ourselves.”
Enter Fontana, who worked with the couple to select Italian Renaissance murals to cover the walls — one print of a teenager reminds people of Sylvester Stallone — along with black leather chairs, white linen tablecloths, exposed brick walls and ceiling, and a translucent metal drape that wraps around the middle of the dining room.
“The fact that we had great business this past January and February with all of the snow was amazing to me,” Cutraro says. “Yes, we are surrounded by wealth, and we have the Townsend Hotel across from us, and they do a great job, but you have to operate a restaurant like a symphony with a lot of moving parts that are organized and working together. If you don’t perform, you will go down as quickly as the Titanic.”
Still, Cutraro says even with his experience, he and his wife left the design to the professionals.
“We couldn’t have done this all ourselves. Believe me, I will never expand this restaurant, and we will never open a second location,” he says. “Liz and I are here almost every night meeting and talking with our guests. It’s like our second home, so the décor was very important to us. If you have great food and wine, great service, and great décor, you’re going to be that much better than everyone else. And let’s face it, the restaurant business is very, very competitive.”
Kate Upton & Justin Verlander
The Scorpions Band
Earlier this year, we went to the one year anniversary party of Bella Piatti where cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served. Quite tasty hors d’oeuvres, I might add. Since we had never dined there, Nino, who owns the popular Italian bistro with his wife, Liz insisted that we return for a real sit down dinner. So here we are.
Already the new “hot spot” in town, Bella Piatti is a mix of a lot of things that somehow all seem to work together quite well. It’s romantic, sexy, trendy and family-friendly all at the same time. The décor is cozy and whimsical with larger than life renaissance murals, antique chandeliers, and our favorite touch, gold chain mail drapes that create a feel of separate rooms. It is also a place that is frequented by visiting big name celebrities who are staying at The Townsend Hotel.
I met Nino in 1978 when he opened a popular disco called La Notte. We became friends when he owned the iconic Taboo downtown Detroit. He went on to open Metro Music Café and Intermezzo. We’ve maintained a good relationship throughout the years and businesses (his main gig is contracting and construction). It is a delight to reconnect with him and Liz in their latest venture – Bella Piatti.
Nino has always been a good dresser. Even during his disco owner days when he dressed like a rock star. “He wore more glitz than Liberace,” Liz teases. Actually, she helps him with his wardrobe and in the mid-1980s; he made my coveted “Best Dressed” list in Detroit Monthly Magazine. I still remember the snakeskin jacket and snakeskin boots he wore in the photo shoot. Today, his style is decidedly more subdued. At dinner he wore a dark colored Armani sports coat and Hugo Boss shirt. Liz, who usually wears classic Italian designers, was casual, but lovely at our dinner in an Ann Klein blazer and jeans.
“Everything excites me these days,” admits Nino. Liz agrees: “Yes, he gets very excited about simple things like a good bottle of wine.” They both say that the most exciting thing in their lives these days is the restaurant. “I’m excited about my incredible wife, who does a great job of running this place, our chef, our manager and our entire staff,” says Nino. “We have so many people who come in who used to frequent my other businesses. Many of them tell stories about how they met at one of my old clubs. But this is the best place I’ve ever owned.”
When we asked this question, Liz gave Nino a priceless look – one of those, “you-better-answer-this-one-correctly” looks. And he did. Although the Cutraros are both very excited about Bella Piatti, they both very strongly note that their first love is their family – husband, wife (married 30 years) and “two beautiful kids.”
Where do we begin? The food at Bella Piatti is spectacular, and Nino and Liz are very proud of that. So they decided we should at least taste as many dishes as possible. And we’re glad we did.
We started with the sausage and peppers (Salsiccia e Peperoni), the octopus (Carpaccio di Polpo), and the eggplant (Involtini di Melanzane). Then we had the linguine frutti di mare (laced with marvelous langostino other seafoods), orecchiette con rapini and the tagliatelle bolognese. That was followed with the orata, skate fish, and lamb chops. For dessert we had the Pera al Forno, poached and baked pear and tiramisu. We washed it all down with pomegranate martinis, three beautiful bottles of wine — Chateau Margaux, Sassicaia Super Tuscan, finishing with a fine bottle of Celani Ardore. We can’t really make any specific recommendations on any of the food or drinks we had – excuse us for gushing – because they were all amazing!
The recommendation we do have concerning Bella Piatti is that you go there as soon as you can. The ambience, the food, the service are all top notch. You owe a Bella Piatti experience to yourself.
Italian Fare With Flair – One year later, Bella Piatti’s successful transformation founded on a back-to-basics approach
Restaurants come and restaurants go. They change ownership. They are redecorated. Sometimes there is a new name, sometimes there is not. Change can be for the better.
About a year ago, the Bella Piatti restaurant in Birmingham began undergoing a transformation. Actually, more like a transfiguration that has left it markedly improved in every way — with new energy, new owners, new service and kitchen staffs, and a new menu featuring traditional Italian dishes.
The food is solidly good, and everything about this redo has made the restaurant more inviting and another pleasant addition to the dining hub of the Detroit area. Bella Piatti’s interior, by designer Jeff Fontana, could loosely be called mock-Italian Renaissance, and is full of whimsy and originality.
The service is also a big improvement. It is attentive, efficient, and knowledgeable under the eye of general manager Kevin Mazziotta.
The food also changed. In its previous incarnation, Bella Piatti did somewhat edgier, adventurous dishes — grilled fresh sardines, for example. Or, buckwheat gnocchi with cabbage and duck ragout.
Now the menu is very much back-to-basics Italian, with solid traditional dishes prepared by Francesco Apollonia, a native of Venice who has worked in restaurants around Detroit for more than 20 years.
Apollonia’s previous stops include the kitchens of what used to be Ann Arbor’s fine-dining magnet, the now-closed Moveable Feast, and at Jimmy Schmidt’s Italian chain, Chianti, which made a brief splash in the 1990s.
A day before our recent visit, I called Bella Piatti to ask if I could have a table for three people. To my surprise they took the reservation. These days, most restaurants usually won’t hold tables for fewer than six people, which means checking in on arrival and a long wait at the bar. We were seated within minutes of arrival.
Bella Piatti is fairly small, with a capacity of 65 in a room dominated by a large, wide U-shaped bar that seems always busy, and heavily patronized by a mix of single diners, couples just looking for a quick bite, and people waiting for tables.
A little background: Bella Piatti was originally the creation of restaurateur Mindy VanHellemont (now Mindy Lopus). She also created one of my favorite Birmingham restaurants, Tallulah, and then Red Crown in a former gas station in Grosse Pointe Park.
Lopus has since sold her interests in all three, and Bella Piatti is now owned and managed by Liz Cutraro of West Bloomfield, whose husband Nino Cutraro either has owned or been a partner in several restaurants around Detroit over the last 20 years.
The new owners have used, to the better, Fontana’s dramatic design touches. See-through divider curtains made of what appears to be a light chain-mail metal hang from the ceiling to act as clever divisions, separating the bar from the more intimate table seating. The curtain gives a shimmery and gauzy effect.
The walls are extraordinary. They’re covered with massive murals, huge faces, and still-life details blown from Tintoretto-like paintings, blown up 100 times their original size or more.
The lighting is soft from old crystal chandeliers, augmented by discreet accent lights above which the high open ceiling disappears into the blackened guts of plumbing, piping, and air-conditioning.
The tables are set in a light café-au-lait linen and matching napkins. Seating is a mix of banquettes and cushy, wide high-back leather seats.
We began our dinner with three first courses: a bowl of fresh, succulent, white wine-steamed mussels, a rolled eggplant in a tomato sauce, and sausage in puff pastry with a béchamel sauce, all deftly prepared and pleasant.
For a second course, three of us shared an order of pasta, orecchiette with rapini and pancetta bits, cooked in olive oil; the rich pieces of bacon jazzed up the rounds of pasta ears with a touch of red pepper flakes and fresh garlic balanced the slight bitterness of the rapini. It was definitely my choice for the most distinct and inviting dish of the evening.
For main courses, one standout was veal scallopini, done in the Northern Italian style: a tender piece of veal about a quarter-inch thick, gently pan-sautéed with fresh sage and white wine, topped with thin slices of prosciutto, and served with cubed, pan-finished potatoes. We also liked the subtle combination of roasted quail with mushroom risotto and duck leg confit on polenta.
Bella Piatti’s menu also has a range of first courses that include a creamy burrata cheese dressed with baby arugula and tiny heirloom tomatoes. And, for the more adventurous eaters, an octopus carpaccio is served with shaved fennel and baby tomatoes, all dressed in a rich olive oil.
The menu includes a lot of standard plates, and has featured (when available): in meat choices, roast chicken and veal osso bucco; in the fish items there is a dish of seared day-boat scallops, and in the pasta offerings, potato gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce.
The wine list is dominated by an unusually large selection in the $45 to $60 a bottle price range. This is notable because usually wine lists do the reverse: most everything is highly priced and only one or two bottles are in the $50 range, as if to embarrass you away from the cheapest thing on the list.
The Detroit restaurant scene has undergone a lot of change in the last decade, much of it difficult and connected to what we can now call our “formerly” depressed economy. We have watched the restaurant industry’s ups and downs and re-emerge stronger and more imaginative. Bella Piatti’s route to where it is today has been very solid. Its owners have created a good, desirable small Italian restaurant that is different and very inviting.
And in that regard, it is a real success.
Nino and Elizabeth Cutraro have received kudos for the food, ambiance and celebrity clientele at Bella Piatti, their year-old Italian bistro across from the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. We had to see for ourselves, so we popped in Saturday night. Good food — check. Great ambiance — check. Big name celebs? Bingo — here comes Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore was in town for a family event and to do some work on an upcoming documentary. He sat at a quiet table in the corner near the back, where he chowed down on tagliatelle bolognese and shared a few desserts with his sister. Moore left with a big smile and a promise to return.
You may have noticed that Birmingham favorite, Bella Piatti, closed at the end of the year, and quietly reopened just recently. But give them a visit and you’ll notice that just about the only thing that’s remained the same is the name.
Under new management, owners Liz and Nino Cutraro, have transformed Bella Piatti into a traditional renaissance Italian restaurant, complete with Venetian-born chef, Francesco Apollonia. As a vegetarian, I’m thrilled to see their Caponata, made of eggplant, onion, peppers, celery, olives, capers with puff pastry on the menu. Meat eaters are sure to love their Ossobuco, a braised center-cut veal shank with creamy polenta. And don’t miss the traditional favorites – pastas, seafood, steaks, risotto, antipasti and house made desserts.
The new reviews are in, and it’s a hit. Sylvia Rector at the Detroit Free Press says, “The only thing worrying me about the new Bella Piatti in downtown Birmingham is whether I’ll ever be able to get in again after word gets around about its inviting new look and approach.”
While they were open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner only, they’re looking forward to opening for lunch starting April 16th. They will also soon be debuting “al fresco” dining on their street-side patio.
With a different proprietor, chef, menu, service staff, decor and approach, the Bella Piatti that opened in February on Townsend in Birmingham is not the same Bella Piatti that closed in the same place two months earlier.
Just know that Bella Piatti is, indeed, new this year — and delightful. From the cozy, ornate dining room to the clean, delicate flavors of chef Francesco Apollonia’s traditional Italian food, dining here feels special, intimate and fun.
The whimsical decor includes giant reproductions of Renaissance paintings, antique chandeliers and a circular “cage” of metal chains shielding the center table. Service is professional, and proprietors Liz and Nino Cutraro often stop by tables to say hello.
Favorite dishes include octopus carpaccio with celery, shaved fennel, capers and grape tomatoes; orecchiette pasta with pancetta, rapini, garlic and red pepper flakes, and roasted quail with mushroom risotto.
Lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday. (167 Townsend; 248-494-7110.
Other reviewers have gone ga-ga over the decor and atmosphere, but I’d have to say it’s the food that stands out at Bella Piatti. Tables are close together and noise levels are high, though not so high you have to raise your voice — convivially high, then, not a problem.
On both a recent Tuesday and a Saturday, the place was crowded with happy diners. They’ve embraced the recent reincarnation of Bella Piatti, which opened Feb. 13 with new owners, Liz and Nino Cutraro and Robert Van Hellemont, a new style, and a completely new menu. (The old place was praised by our reviewer Evan Hansen, but not by sufficient diners; he warned that the tab for two could easily reach $250.)
Service is highly knowledgeable, if a bit aggressive with suggestions to order more. Our server recited details of the specials’ preparation and plating impeccably and easily answered any question thrown his way, from wine descriptions to provenance of fowl. Our party was kept amused the rest of the evening when he warned that wine from a just-opened bottle was “a bit tight out of the gate, but it’ll loosen up.” It was Derby Day, so maybe Orb had won our server some cash.
Though I liked everything that my companions and I ordered, the smaller offerings stood out more than the main courses. I splurged on a halibut special and found the main event just good, not the fish perfection that halibut usually is. The accompanying fennel cooked with anisette made up for it, though, a myriad of flavors that included sweet as well as licorice.
Quail with a mushroom risotto followed the same pattern: The tiny birds were peppery and savory but the rich, winy rice was the star. Chicken cacciatore, on the other hand (half an organic bird from the Thumb), was fabulous throughout. Venetian chef Francesco Apollonia had taken this simple dish to new heights, the soft polenta underneath soaking up a quantity of winy, somehow intricate sauce.
I highly recommend two pastas, linguine with shrimp in a pine nut-pesto cream, and orecchiette (little ears) with rapini and garlic. My vegetarian friend had ordered the latter without its usual pancetta, which would have been a mellow complement to the spiky, peppery rapini, but we loved it without too. Orecchiette are perfect shapes for catching and holding whatever sauce they’ve been blessed with.
Gnocchi were feather-light, the lightest I’ve had, but I’ve never quite seen the point of gnocchi, except for the fun of pronouncing them.
Two salads were stars: a special of shrimp, yellow beets, tomatoes and green olives over greens, and the regular-menu insalata di arance, a beautiful mix of oranges, arugula, goat cheese and a bit of red onion. The first may sound like it has too much going on, but I vouch for the virtue of its complexity. The second, if you love arugula, needs no further explanation, but here it is: The sweet-but-citrus-tart of the oranges balances the spiciness of the greens, which is rounded off by the almost-blandness of the dairy — and then the onions add a tiny kick.
You can see that we ordered from the less-heavy dishes, but rest assured that filet mignon, osso buco, scaloppine saltimbocca and a 2-pound Porterhouse are also possible. Scallops come in two different versions, as appetizer (with brandy and Parmesan) and entrée (with spinach and speck).
Working backward: a pea soup from chicken broth and what I thought was a hint of mint worked well. An antipasto platter was fine but not remarkable, its biggest treat the silky black olives and spicy green Mediterranean ones, the latter soaked to leach out salt and then marinated.
Bread is brought with three good spreads: sun-dried-tomato butter, black olive tapenade and roasted garlic in olive oil.
Desserts we tried were creative: a light tiramisu that’s not cakey at all, the ladyfingers soaked in brandy; a bread pudding that’s drier than most, with a crisp edge, pears and crème anglaise; and deconstructed cannoli, with all the ingredients layered in a glass. Bits of crumbled cannoli shell act as a garnish over ricotta, chocolate cake, raspberry sauce and Marsala.
The glass of Orvieto (Italian white) I ordered was, according to the knowledgeable server, a blend of Trebbiano, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. When I looked it up later, the latter two weren’t permitted grapes in an Orvieto blend, but who knows — the glass was only $10, so it was decidedly one of the cheaper offerings in a long list that concentrates on bottles. My companion requested a gin and tonic made with Hendrick’s (a Scottish gin infused with rose and cucumber), and it was infinitely smooth and lovely.
One evening I caught myself staring at the graceful liqueur glasses on a nearby table, and the imbiber came over and introduced himself as Nino Cutraro. A former owner of Intermezzo downtown, he and Liz are gracious and hands-on, and they have a winner on their hands.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times.
Join us Thursday, April 25th. for Dining Out for Life in Detroit!
Michigan AIDS Coalition (MAC) is very excited to be part of this international event raising dollars for local HIV/AIDS service organizations.
When you eat out at Bella Piatti, a portion of your food bill will be donated to the Michigan AIDS Coalition (MAC). The restaurants’ generosity, and any additional donation you would like to make, will make a very real difference for people who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS in Detroit.
Making a difference is as easy as dining out!