Top of their League

Distinct and carefully done Italian food makes the reviving Corktown neighborhood’s Ottava Via stand out


Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Around Detroit, having a seat from Tiger Stadium is something like the ancient Catholic tradition of wearing a gold reliquary necklace, which held a sacred piece of bone from a saint perhaps even one whose name you bore.

While old Tiger Stadium seats certainly have little, if anything, to do with being Catholic, many will agree that owning one is a near religious experience.

Some variation on that happened one recent evening, when three strangers bonded while waiting for the bathrooms at Ottava Via, a casual Italian restaurant in Corktown.

Three light-green bleacher seats from the grand old ballpark were standing guard over the restrooms. It prompted such a strong sentimental reaction from two men and a woman that it sounded like they had just discovered long-lost cousins related through a wonderful, favorite uncle. 

Ottava Via opened last summer a mere half block from where the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd were the local ambient sound for some nine decades. It sits in the stately old white-granite fronted Dime Savings Bank building facing Michigan Avenue at Eighth Street.

Just out the door and steps away at Michigan and Trumbull avenues, the old stadium’s footprint is now ignominiously outlined like a crime scene by cyclone fence that circles the old field, now tended by the Navin Field Grounds Crew.

Inside Ottava Via, the seats that held fans who watched Cobb, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Greenberg now do washroom attendant duty.

Still, at least they are somewhere. And at least they are still recognized and given such affection. And at least they are near their old home, too.

The Corktown area lost so much when the stadium was finally closed in 1999 and was then painfully taken down in 2008-09. But that was yesterday. Ottava Via is today.

And it is a good addition to the same block where the old Nemo’s and McShane’s Irish Pub still stand, both symbols of the old days and passage to the new.

Life and new activity have returned to Corktown slowly over the years since the stadium’s demise — mostly with adventurous young residents seeking a city life and blending in with the handful of diehards who never left. On a recent evening joggers were out running along Michigan Avenue passing Astro Coffee, already closed for the day, and Slow’s Bar B Q, Sugar House, and the Mercury Bar and Grill, routinely open until midnight or later these days, right near the still-deserted Michigan Central train station and near the popular Two James Spirits distillery and tasting room.

Ottava Via joins that upward movement. It may be Italian in its menu selections and name, but in appearance, it is another very well-done urban casual dining spot.

The décor at Ottava Via is urban retread, a pleasant mix of the old high ceilings trimmed in thick modern white crown molding, and blended with the necessities of today’s urban dining: an outdoor patio, a deli case selling the restaurant’s products and dishes for takeout and — of course — a pizza oven.

The bar, with its mirrored back, seats about a dozen and features a grand old station clock on a pedestal with a white, lighted dial.

The bar also serves a time-tested function as a haven for local singles waiting for their meals, who on this evening work their smartphones in solitude between chats with the bartender.

The food is terrific and very smartly done: pastas, pizzas, paninis, charcuterie, and house-cured olives, and an assortment of small plates to pick at in tapas-style dining. Or, for full-dinner courses, there are “hot plates,” including chicken, short ribs, a Mediterranean sea bass, and a flank steak.

For us, two dishes really moved Ottava Via from the ordinary to the superior: The first was the Porchetta Hotplate, a rolled pork shoulder surrounded on the outside by a ring of pork belly and roasted down to a crispy exterior and slight fat-infused lean loin, adding marvelous flavor to the dish. It was served with oil-roasted small white Tuscan-style potatoes, topped with a salad of arugula and fennel, and pork crackling. In the bed of the plate sat a small pool of amber clear meat juice.

There is a synergy to this dish in which flavors balance out so cleverly and perfectly and make it simply great — a magnet for a visit.

The second delight was the Ragout Bolognese, house-made, double-wide pappardelle noodles coated with a slightly thinned but densely rich Bolognese sauce made of pork, veal, and tomato sauce, and topped with a dollop of whipped ricotta cheese. 

Other intriguing items are Tuscan-style braised beef short ribs with “onion frites” and served on a soft polenta made with mascarpone, and a flank steak with a spicy tomato basil chimichurri sauce.

There are 10 pizzas, including the simple Bianco; the ever-simple Margherita with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella, or white pizza, with three types of cheeses and arugula; the pepperoni with olives, and a veg-etarian version with grilled asparagus, mushrooms, red peppers, and provolone.

Ottava Via also offers an array of small plates that include such items as arancini, the traditional fried rice balls stuffed with prosciutto and Taleggio cheese served in a fresh pomodoro tomato sauce. Or, there is a red and yellow roasted beet salad in a light dressing served with a dab of ricotta and candied walnuts.

For those more inclined to a lighter tapas style of dining, Ottava Via also offers deli selections of house-made meats and select cheeses: prosciutto di Parma, soppressata, Genoa salami, bresola, and duck prosciutto. In the cheese arena, there’s house-made mozzarella, Gorgonzola, “table” Parmesan, Tuscan pecorino, and a Taleggio.

Outwardly, there is nothing a lot different to Ottava Via’s menu than what is found at many other Italian-inspired restaurants, but what does mark it is the liveliness and clear quality of the cooking from chef Ariel Millan. His food is notably distinct and carefully done, and even better than many others in the same league.

And for that, and for the old stadium seats, Ottava Via is worth a visit.

Ottava Via: 400 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-5500. L & D daily. 
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.

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