The first hint of something special came within seconds of locking my car on the busy street just south of 14 Mile Road.
As our group of four approached the restaurant for a 6:30 table, a young man stepped out, held open the door, and said, “Good evening; you must be the Glorie party” — the name under which I had booked.
That kind of attention just isn’t found at most area restaurants, and it was the first of many impressive details about Due Venti. I have rarely seen this done, except in Europe, yet it says so much right away about the attitude of the place in which you are about to dine, an attitude we soon found out is everywhere at Due Venti.
“It’s born out of our own disgruntled dining experiences,” says David Seals, who is co-owner and co-chef with his wife, Nicole Pichan-Seals. “We’d go out and have decent-enough food, but the service, well … echhhh.”
Due Venti is a little gem, where everything is precise and in balance — food, service, and atmosphere. It’s tiny, just 12 tables seating about 40-plus people.
And, most unexpected of all for many diners, Due Venti is in Clawson, which is not exactly known as a culinary haven.
Due Venti is beautifully and simply decorated with pleasing orange-and-yellow walls dotted with pinpoint lighting and pleasant, colorful art by Nicole’s grandmother, Eva Cafini-Theodoroff. She also painted much of the faux façade of the building last summer, but did not live to see the restaurant open. The servers wear hand-painted ties that are copied from her works. Tables are set with crisp white linens.
The second you step inside, you sense a pride, confidence, and collective purpose to please from the owners and their staff of five — yet another unusual characteristic more associated with European dining.
The food is northern Italian, with a few inflections of France, Austria, and Switzerland here and there. But what makes it work so well is that it has a restraint and subtlety of fine dining rather than the showy “believe me, we’re good” character that dominates so many restaurants.
Nicole and David opened their restaurant last August in a former market that fronts Clawson’s South Main Street. It’s sandwiched between a breakfast place and an ice-cream stand.
“We had been planning a restaurant for about two years,” David says. “And when this opportunity came along, it was a very good deal from our landlord. So we did it.” The couple gutted the old market, added a bathroom, and started from scratch. “Nicole and I put everything we had into it,” he says.
David, who is self-taught, started as a dishwasher at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the 1990s. From there, he moved to a kitchen position at the Cherry Creek Golf Club in Shelby Township. Eventually, he spent several years as chef at a Federal Mogul facility. Nicole comes with the training. She’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and studied pastry under Michael Laiskonis (formerly pastry chef at Tribute and Emily’s), who is now at the three-star Le Bernardin in New York.
Subtlety in restaurant dining is the mark of fine cooking and, more often than not, a rarity.
The brashness of our American personality translates into how we like our food. Historically, we’ve gone for big flavors, big spices, and big portions. How else to explain our appreciation of barbecue, grilling, pies with ice cream, and baseball stadiums that offer monster burgers? But we’ve also developed a greater sense for refined dining in the last three decades, and that’s the corner of the culinary target at which Due Venti is aiming.
The Sealses’ dishes invite you to an adventure, not just to eat, but also to dwell on them and figure them out.
For example, the recent spring menu included a first course of a delicate, light, and intensely flavorful “frittelle.” Here is cauliflower as you’ve rarely, perhaps never, had it — certainly not as a first course. It’s sliced slightly larger than a silver dollar and about twice as thick, coated lightly with garlic and herbs, fried in olive oil, and served with a warm, light tomato sauce and a garlic-herb aioli.
I’ve never been a fan of baked cheese; it always seemed to me to be in the same league with pigs-in-a blanket or water chestnuts wrapped in bacon. But I admit that the Sealses’ “taleggio-al-forno” got me. Taleggio is actually better when baked. In this case, it’s inside a flaky, light pastry and served with a caramelized shallot and apricot marmalade, and “crostini,” crispy slices of toasted baguette.
The five first courses also include two airy “pizzas” made with crispy bread crust, one of which is topped with roasted asparagus with truffled pecorino cheese, a pesto of roasted tomatoes, coriander, and almond. The other, dubbed “Pizza Isabella” in honor of an enthusiastic younger guest, is baked with caramelized fennel and pecorini cheese, in addition to housemade spicy pork, fennel sausage, and dollops of creamy ricotta cheese.
The main courses are as imaginative and just as good.
A serious must-try is the “soffiatine,” referred to somewhat out of the American context as a “crespelle,” or “crêpe,” it’s closer to cannelloni egg pasta, almost transparent. The northern Italians treat it as the French do a crêpe. This one is an adaptation of Nicole’s Italian grandmother’s crespelle recipe. The Sealses have filled their version with mixed fresh wild mushrooms, mozzarella, and a ricotta so light it should be called a cream, with basil and garlic, and finished in a delicate cream sauce. It is droolingly good.
Another delight is a strudel of duck meat smoked in apple wood. “Wonderful! Phenomenal!” were the exclamations at the table for this pastry-wrapped gem that comes with braised radicchio, fontina cheese, and a “slaw” of celery leaves, toasted hazelnut, fig, and apple in a lemon-and-olive oil dressing.
The list goes on: a rack of lamb with a house “mostarda,” a mustard-based cousin to chutney with preserved fruits and spices; a plate of “tondore,” handmade ricotta gnocchi with crisp, diced pancetta, caramelized onions, tomatoes, and spices; or a plate of short ribs braised in a ragout of tomatoes, herbs, and red wine.
Also not to be missed are Nicole’s desserts. They include a pumped-up “zeppole” decked in a warmed espresso and chocolate sauce, a fresh rhubarb “crostato” with mascarpone ice cream, and the lightest, most delightful “cannoli” with a dash of goat cheese in the ricotta filling and finished with shaved chocolate, vanilla bean, orange zest, and pistachio. Remarkable.
There’s one drawback at Due Venti: the wine list. The Sealses have what is sometimes called a winery license, under which they may serve only locally made wines. Their wines come from Fenn Valley Vineyard in western Michigan. They have a merlot, a cabernet, a red blend, and a chardonnay, all of which are perfectly good, but do not offer much range of wine to be compatible with the food. David says they hope to eventually upgrade the list to serve a broader spectrum of wines, but wine and beer licenses are expensive, and the license was all they could afford when they opened.
The name Due Venti, translated from Italian, means 220, which is its street number on Main Street. It also means “two winds.” In this case, that could be interpreted to mean two welcome breaths of fresh air on the restaurant scene.