Restaurant Review: Beppé in Royal Oak

The neighborhood spot — your new go-to eatery for any occasion — is run by two talented and savvy 20-somethings.
82
From top left, clockwise: SOS cocktail, chocolate pie, short rib croquetas, halibut with beurre blanc and potato cakes, braised beets with feta, Lost but Hopeful cocktail, and pork belly. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Sometimes you just want bar food and a beer. Other times you want to treat your significant other to date night, from craft cocktails to luxurious entrées.

Beppé — on Main Street in Royal Oak, just slightly north of all the hustle and bustle of the downtown area — fits the bill for both dining needs. But that doesn’t mean it tries to be all things, which can mean a place is nothing at all. The menu at Beppé, New American with a touch of Italian influence, is well edited, brief, and elegant in its simplicity. The service is friendly, attentive, and warm. The intimate and modern space is polished, but not cold and uninviting. In short, after just two years in business, Beppé has a clear point of view that makes you want to go back, whatever the occasion.

“From the get-go, I always envisioned a place that was super intentional: all the food that we served, the atmosphere that we cultivated,” says owner Dominic Morelli.

“The overarching goal is to have Beppé serve unbelievable food, unbelievable flavors, and be kind of a spot that people can really bank on knowing that ‘[if] I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna get a great meal.’”

Fostering a neighborhood feel “is a big thing that we’re trying to do,” says chef Michael Bartoluzzi, who previously worked at two Ann Arbor staples: Slurping Turtle and Mani Osteria & Bar. “For a lot of places, when the food gets more intentional and more elevated, it starts to kind of box people out, push people out, price people out. It can get a little bit more intimidating. But you know, we’re literally in a neighborhood. So we have to act accordingly.”

Morelli’s father, Joseph, is a partner in Crispelli’s Bakery and Pizzeria, so the 25-year-old was exposed to the business side of the industry at a young age. Even back then, he says, “I was always conceptualizing different things, kind of thinking about ‘When my time comes, when I get the opportunity to start something, what’s it going to look like?’”

Despite his family ties, he hopes to dispel “this connotation that Beppé is a sister restaurant of Crispelli’s,” he says. “I’m trying to write my own path.” (While Morelli is the owner of Beppé, his father was listed as a partner and the resident agent on the business’s most recent public annual statement, filed in late 2022.)

The younger Morelli spotted the vacant building that Beppé now leases shortly after he graduated with a political science degree from Hope College in 2021. It once housed Niki’s, a Greek restaurant that opened in 1986 and closed quietly around 2020. The long-standing diner had a liminal charm — drop ceilings, beige walls, red upholstery, and ’90s McDonald’s-esque floors. Basically, “it was in a total state of needing a makeover,” he says.

The construction team gutted the interior, opening up the ceiling to expose wood rafters, which stud the textured walls. There’s contemporary mood lighting, leather booths, and an inviting seven-seat bar that provides a peek into the kitchen. The dining room seats up to 47 and has an intimate “neighborhood bar” feel with a minimalistic modern edge. When it comes to renovation costs (or anything money-related), Morelli politely declines to talk numbers but says the business took out a loan that it still pays off monthly.

The restaurant opened in January 2022. Soon after, Bartoluzzi applied for the job of chef. “We hit it off and realized quickly we had a lot in common,” Morelli says. “It feels very meant to be.”

The menu is semiseasonal, but it’s more driven by what Bartoluzzi (who is also 25) is dreaming up and wants to put on the menu; a dish will come off when it’s run its course.

The starters portion of the menu is titled “To share with those you love,” and it couldn’t be more aptly described. It’s difficult to choose from the list of tantalizing dishes, but there were several that have us hoping they won’t run their course and will be on the menu for a long time.

One such dish is the pork belly with braised cabbage, Calabrian chile pork rillettes, pickled cauliflower, lemon, and mint — a standout starter. The pork belly was delicious — crispy on the outside but tender on the inside and well seasoned. The Calabrian chile pork rillettes were quite rich, but the cauliflower and lemon provided a nice counterbalance.

Bartoluzzi says the rillettes are made in-house from trim from the pork belly and are an effort not to let anything go to waste.

“I’ve done a pork belly confit like this before at other restaurants. When you’re making things into perfect cubes and shapes that you see in a lot of elevated restaurants, a lot of stuff ends up going into the [trash]. So it just seemed like [using it for the rillettes] was a great way to add value to the dish and save some money for us, give people more of the pork belly instead of throwing it [away].”

The braised beets and feta were light and refreshing, with the orange juice braise brightening up the earthy beets. The crispy pasta fritta was the perfect vehicle for scooping up the beets, which married seamlessly with the airy whipped Bulgarian feta.

On the menu during our December visit were the short rib croquetas with Calabrian chile aioli and beef jus. They’re inspired by a trip Bartoluzzi took to Miami where he enjoyed a lot of “amazing” Cuban food. One of the staple dishes of Cuban cuisine is the croqueta, which is typically filled with ham, cheese, or fish. Bartoluzzi’s version looks like a traditional croqueta with its cylindrical shape and characteristic crispiness but has a Midwestern twist with short ribs and rich beef jus.

With seven entrées, there’s something for almost everyone, from house-made pastas to fish and scallops to hearty pork chops and steaks (sorry, vegetarians, not much in the entrée department).
If you’re looking for an elevated entrée, the Wagyu rib eye cap with lion’s mane mushrooms, veal jus, and smashed potatoes is the proper choice.

The steak, which melts in your mouth thanks to all that luxurious marbling from this excellent cut of beef, was cooked a perfect medium rare with a lovely char, complemented by a savory, brothy veal jus. On the side, the crispy smashed potatoes were browned to perfection, seasoned with hints of curry. The lion’s mane mushrooms were equally crispy.

On the more casual side of things, one entrée we enjoyed was the burger and fries. With this being such a ubiquitous dish, it has to be spot on since it’s likely going to be one of the most-ordered entrées. Beppé didn’t disappoint with its version of a smashburger with a double patty, cheddar, caramelized onions, dill pickle, truffle aioli, and fries with a side of garlic aioli.

Balancing the right amount of flavor and juiciness without veering into grease territory, it stacked up as one of the best burgers around. The fries and garlic aioli shared equal star status on the plate, with the perfect craveable crispiness requisite of any good fry and silky aioli infused with the right amount of garlic.

Pastas are made in-house, informed by Bartoluzzi’s previous stints in Ann Arbor, where he developed a love of making fresh noodles.

On one of our first visits, we enjoyed a spaghetti dish blanketed with a sumptuous corn sauce that was inspired by Bartoluzzi’s time at Slurping Turtle, where he would take fresh ramen and mix it up with kitchen odds and ends such as crunchy onions and buttery corn for his personal snack — kind of a play on cacio e pepe but with white pepper.

It’s not on the menu anymore (check out the tagliatelle with braised lamb ragù and pecorino), but it’s worth mentioning because Bartoluzzi’s creativity and influence are all over the menu. The maturity and point of view in Beppé’s dishes are notable considering they’re the creation of someone who, at 25, is already a seasoned pro after 10 years in the industry.

Halibut with beurre blanc and potato dauphinoise- inspired crispy potato cakes. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The dessert program has been limited, but the one thing we did get to try knocked it out of the park as the sole offering that evening: the house-made orange sherbet, served with whipped cream. As our dining companion put it, it was like biting into a fresh orange — with even the more nuanced, bitter characteristics.

The whipped cream elevated it to the Cadillac version of a Creamsicle. Sadly, it has also since left the menu. However, people with a sweet tooth can look forward to a wider selection of desserts to end the meal, like the Southern-inspired, personal-size chocolate buttermilk pie.

The ever-changing wine list is dominated by Italian reds and whites, ones that Morelli and head bartender Kody Stafiej believe “over-deliver for the price,” Morelli says. “I’m a firm believer that wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.” The cocktail menu frequently changes, too, at the whim of Stafiej. Expect spritzes, fun riffs on classics featuring Italian liqueurs, and house-made batches like plum-infused Cocchi Americano (which was featured in one of the cocktails we tried, the light and bright Lost but Hopeful) or chile-sage-infused Aperol.

For the past two years they’ve been in business, Morelli and Bartoluzzi have been so focused inward that they haven’t gotten too caught up in perceptions of two 20-somethings running what is becoming a popular business.

“We just want to play ball,” Morelli says. “We just want to make food, we want to have a successful business, we want to make Beppé as big as possible, as great as possible. We want to serve as many people as possible, have people come in the door and truly love the food, truly love the experience they had here. And then we want to do it again. We want to have another restaurant or venture or something.”

If what they’ve done in two years is any indication, we’re excited to see what’s next.

A Summary of Beppé

  • Price: $$$
  • Vibes: Modern, minimalist, and cozy
  • Service: Approachable and friendly. We unfortunately had to send back a dish on one occasion, but the staff was professional and gracious about it and took it off the bill without any questions. Sound level: Moderate — no need to shout to make yourself heard. It was at or near full capacity on a weeknight, and we could hear ourselves just fine over the dull roar, which was still loud enough to give a sense of privacy.
  • Dress code: Come as you are, whether that’s casual and comfortable or dressed to impress.
  • Open: Saturday and Sunday for lunch. Tuesday-Sunday for dinner.
  • Reservations: Call or reserve online at eatbeppe.com.
  • Parking: There’s a lot in the back of the restaurant and ample street parking nearby if the lot is full.
  • Wheelchair access: Yes

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