Restaurant Report: Joe Vicari Group

Joe Vicari’s thriving restaurant company is a family affair and one of the largest restaurant groups in the U.S. We checked in on the expanding empire, which naturally required plenty of eating.
The Statler’s lobster-topped Oscar Benedict, served with a side of asparagus. // Photograph courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

The Joe Vicari Restaurant Group encompasses 25 restaurants in three states, but the flagship Andiamo in Warren is still the empire’s crown jewel. The facility includes an expandable banquet hall and an 800-seat entertainment venue, Andiamo Celebrity Showroom.

Also housed there, and bustling with action, is the Vicari commissary kitchen, which is nearly double the size of the restaurant’s kitchen. This hidden scullery is mission central, where dozens of staff members produce food for catered events along with the stocks, sauces, soups, and pastas for all the Michigan restaurants. The place bustles with action as chefs stand behind every station, hard at work chopping, stirring, packaging.

When they see restaurant manager Paula Marrs rounding the corner, a rousing song erupts from the group: “I love lasagna!”

“It’s lasagna Thursday, and they’ve been waiting on me,” Marrs explains. “They’re making lasagna for all the Andiamos, including the one at the airport, today.”

She’s talking about the three women known as the “pasta ladies,” who have worked side by side for nearly three decades to hand-make fresh pasta for all the Vicari restaurants. They are Angelina Pascaretta, who learned how to make pasta growing up near Naples, Italy; Anna Peptitti, whose parents and grandparents taught her when she was a child near Rome; and Tonya Nikprelaj from Montenegro, a Balkan state north of Albania, who’s been with the company for over 30 years.

The women make up to 600 pounds of pasta daily, creating as many as 15 iterations that rotate seasonally in the restaurants throughout the year. Today, the busy trio is spreading generous layers of bechamel, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan, and meat and tomato sauces in baking pans between thinly rolled sheets of pasta. They are laser-focused, mending gaps and sealing the corners in no fewer than 13 layers.

Andiamo’s lasagna alla Bolognese, made with Bolognese and besciamella sauces. // Photograph Courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

“She’s building the pasta all the way to the edge of the pan, and she won’t miss a spot,” Marrs says, referring to Peptitti. “Every bite needs to be perfection; that’s what we believe.”

This attention to detail has paid off in success and good press. In 2023, the food-service industry magazine Nation’s Restaurant News ranked Vicari as the 22nd largest privately held restaurant group by unit count in the U.S.

There are five metro Detroit Andiamo locations and a sixth in Las Vegas — Andiamo Steakhouse. There’s even an Andiamo at the Detroit Metro Airport. The smaller Andiamo Bistro in Washington Township offers a fast-casual dining experience and specializes in flatbreads. Several other brands complete the Vicari universe, foremost being the venerable Joe Muer Seafood, which Vicari acquired in 2011.

In 2020, Vicari acquired three spots in the suburbs and renamed them: Bronze Door in Grosse Pointe Farms (technically a revival of its original name), Birmingham Pub in downtown Birmingham, and Barleycorn’s Public House in Shelby Township. The Statler, a French-American bistro, opened in downtown Detroit in late 2021.

Wait, there’s more: two Vito’s Bakery locations in Macomb County, three family-friendly Country Inn restaurants, and seven 2941 Mediterranean Street Food locations. In addition, the Vicari Group operates five banquet centers along with one of the largest catering and event management companies in Michigan. And its food trucks cover some of Detroit’s biggest events.

The family-owned and -operated business has grown this portfolio using a tried-and-true formula. Whether it’s fast casual, family friendly, or five-star fine dining, guests are sure to slide into a warm, inviting atmosphere with consistently exceptional food and top-notch service. Everything is made in-house using the highest-quality ingredients. This philosophy was established when the first Andiamo opened in Warren in 1989 under the late master chef Aldo Ottaviani, who headed the kitchen for 22 years.

The Family

From left: Angelina Pascaretta, Tonya Nikprelaj, and Anna Peptitti, longtime pasta-makers at Andiamo. // Photograph courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

A focus on authentic, high-quality food has kept the Joe Vicari Restaurant Group at the top of the Detroit restaurant game for over 40 years. Family is the heart of the enterprise, with Joe Vicari as founder and CEO; his wife, Rosalie, as chief operating officer; and his brother John as a partner in the Joe Muer Detroit location, The Statler, and Bronze Door.

John is also overseeing the new Joe Muer in Nashville with a team of three others. Joe and Rosalie’s son Dominic is the operating partner at the Fenton Andiamo location and oversees the Joe Muer Bloomfield location. But they also consider every one of their 1,200 employees as family.

And as with any family, there have been ups and downs. Barleycorn’s Public House in Shelby Township shuttered in 2022 (after just over a year in business) due to staffing issues. Joe Vicari was also partner at Rojo Mexican Bistro, a chain that filed for bankruptcy in 2016 after about eight years in business — but he left four years prior.

The restaurant business is challenging, but Joe Vicari relies on his family and staff. “You’re only as good as the people around you, and I try to empower the people running each restaurant,” he says. “I want them to think of it as their own and want guests to come in looking for them.”

Many have worked for Vicari for two or more decades, in multiple locations, and have grown professionally during their tenure. One of them, Mike Nowinski, was previously at Andiamo Bloomfield and helped open Joe Muer Detroit. He’s been the operating partner of the Detroit riverfront Andiamo in the GM Renaissance Center for 20 years.

“When I met Joe, I was coming from the bar business, and he was very honest and trustworthy,” Nowinski says. “This is not an easy industry to get through, and he’s always been aboveboard and tremendously loyal.”

The Food

Norwegian salmon from The Statler, topped with lobster, sauce vin blanc, and herb oil. // Photograph courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

The Andiamo at the Renaissance Center offers stunning panoramic views of the Detroit River and the Canadian skyline. Barges regularly drift by. The food is equally mesmerizing. Specialties of the house include the burrata di bufala, buffalo burrata cheese drizzled with Calabrese hot honey, served with an arugula salad, toasted pine nuts, a grilled baguette, and baby tomatoes with balsamic pearls for an acidic burst of flavor. The Ragu di Vitello Bianco is a veal breast braised in a white veal sauce, cooked overnight with mushrooms, a hint of nutmeg, and fontina fonduta that’s served open-faced over strips of mafaldine pasta.

The rapini and salsiccia dish has a strozzapreti pasta, with Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, crushed red pepper, and Parmesan, and the Costolette di Agnello features three Moroccan-spiced lamb chops over Venere black risotto, surrounded by a red pepper emulsion, eggplant fritta, and an Egyptian mint accent.

Next door to the riverfront Andiamo, also in the Renaissance Center, is Joe Muer Seafood, with two exclusive wine rooms, live entertainment all week, and a wrap-around patio open during the summer, when the craft cocktails flow freely. The classic dover sole a la meuniere is expertly filleted tableside and has an essence of herbes de Provence, lemon, and brown butter. The braised Wagyu short rib is rich in flavor and comforting, served alongside celery root, whipped potatoes, Swiss chard, and baby carrots with a choice of scallops or shrimp. The Georges Bank scallops are dusted with fennel pollen and artfully arranged with sweet corn (seasonally), morel mushrooms, spring onion, petite Yukon Gold potatoes, and lemon oil.

At The Statler, chef Vincent Brady is newly settling back in as the executive chef. (He was filling in at Joe Muer and then Bronze Door.) He has served many roles within the organization, before opening this French-American bistro with certified master chef Daniel Scannell and Executive Corporate Chef Jim Oppat.

While there are several traditional French offerings at The Statler, Brady plans to update
the menu, which will be finalized soon. “I’m big on seasonality as a chef, so I like to change things every two to three months,” he says. The menu will always feature a seasonal salad, like the cider-pressed fall apple salad with mixed greens, apple cider vinaigrette, sliced almonds, feta, and cranberries.

Joe Vicari (center) poses with eight of his chefs. His restaurant group includes 25 eateries in three states. // Photograph courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

French staples include the time-honored country pate wrapped in bacon, with cornichons, pickled mustard seeds, cranberry compote, Dijon mustard, and sourdough, and the bouillabaisse Provencal, a traditional seafood stew with shrimp, scallops, lobster, and mussels, cooked in a flavorful saffron fumet broth.

Blendi Suvari, manager and managing partner of Birmingham Pub, has worked with the group since 1999. Born in Albania, he arrived not knowing a word of English and began as a busser. Soon afterwards, he worked his way into a chef role, then eventually became a manager.

“Joe gives people an opportunity who want one,” Suvaria says. “There are a lot of chains and restaurants out there, but if you want to become someone with him, you can.”

Birmingham Pub is a classic-style gastropub with a sophisticated twist. There are hearty starters like the handcrafted pierogi filled with whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, topped with crispy onions and decoratively garnished with sour cream, apple butter, and brown butter. There is the mushroom soup en croute, a hearty broth with a mix of forest mushrooms, vegetables, and veal jus, capped with a puff pastry top. The Alaskan halibut sports a flavorful everything-bagel crust, arranged over grilled asparagus and crispy rice.

Craft cocktails are a house specialty. They include the seasonal spiced pear margarita with Altos plata tequila, St. George spiced pear liqueur, pear, lime, citrus agave, and apple tart salt foam. A year-round favorite is the Pretty in Pink, with peach and orange blossom vodka, Aperol, and lemon-grapefruit seltzer.

The Future

The Statler in downtown Detroit is a French bistro that opened in 2021. // Photograph courtesy of Joe Vicari Restaurant Group

So what’s next on the restaurant startup menu?

A carryout-style Andiamo concept, tentatively opening in 2024 near the Joe Muer in Nashville, and another Joe Muer Seafood in Boca Raton, Florida, planned to open in March 2025.

For Joe Vicari, the magic is still in the thrill and excitement of opening a new restaurant. That, and all the people he’s met along the way who keep him motivated.

“The biggest thing I get out of this is the people I’ve gotten to know over the years that have been coming into the restaurants and are now friends,” he says. “It’s one of the better perks of being in the restaurant business.”

This story is from the January 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.