On a mid-January evening, the outside temperature gauge in the car is reading minus 4. Royal Oak’s streets, usually lively, are empty. The biting cold causes steamy rivulets inside a storefront window, pooling at the base into a growing ice formation.
The brief walk to the restaurant, an easy block and a half on any other day, feels interminable.
Inside, the truly daring are gathering, shedding scarves and mittens and greeting strangers with the kind of smiles usually reserved for comrades who have arrived safely on the trek to Ice Station Zebra.
Once beyond a barrier blast of warm air, the glowing smile of Luigi Cutraro, a sheaf of menus in hand, welcomes visitors to his Trattoria Da Luigi.
This is Cutraro’s new little place, designed by ar-chitect Jeff Fontana. It has an almost amateur feel— in a good way — of a corner restaurant put together lovingly by friends and family with some skill in masonry and a penchant for rustic Italian design. Half-round terra cotta roofing tiles decorate the overhangs to the kitchen and over the bar.
Cutraro is a fixture around Royal Oak. For 14 years, he owned the tapas bar Sangria, which he sold in 2013, along with The Sky Club nightclub.
“I’ve actually been wanting to do this for many, many years,” says Cutraro, who opened the restaurant in September. “The basic menu is very, very tra-ditional, yes,” he adds. “Where we depart from that is in the daily selections.”
But there are also several dishes not often seen around Detroit: Rigatoni alla Norma (topped with eggplant and ricotta salata) and the traditional Pappardelle con Marsala e Funghi, for example.
Trattoria Da Luigi offers honest and well-done dining of the kind worthy of a spot on anyone’s list of regular choices. It’s not glamorous; it’s just a place were you can happily nestle into its warmth and find some very good, traditional Italian cuisine.
The great French master chef Paul Bocuse said you should never trust a skinny chef because “this is a man who does not like his own cooking.” If Bocuse ever had a reason to visit Detroit, he would find his pronouncement alive and well in the form of a generously girthed and well-rounded young chef named Steve Siekierzynski. He declines to reveal his weight, but certainly appears to be one who enjoys his own cooking. And he prepares marvelous traditional Italian dishes.
Take the first course of grilled polenta topped with Asiago cheese and dressed with a little tomato sauce. There is nothing outwardly unusual about it. But where this one swerves is in the density and the preparation of the sauce, as well as a restraint rather than over-meddling in the cooking. Leaving it largely alone at a particular point allows it a burst and balance between sweetness and acidity, which makes the dish come together.
A burrata made of superbly fresh and light fluffy mozzarella served with eggplant and squash compote and pine nuts is also well worth trying.
Trattoria Da Luigi also has a pizza oven overseen by a pizza chef. The selections are traditional Italian pizza. No choices of ingredients, no weird stuff like pineapple or marshmallow, Cutraro says insistently.
In pastas, the house-made gnocchi is exquisite. Again lightness is the key. Gnocchi are cooked so fast but gently; they arrive almost at the melt-when-they-hit-your mouth stage, dressed in a delicate cheese sauce with crumbled bits of Italian sausage.
Siekierzynski is a graduate of the culinary program at Schoolcraft College. He previously cooked at Greektown Casino, 220 Merrill in Birmingham, and the long-gone Ernesto’s in Northville.
Our table was also impressed with Siekierzynski’s veal Saltimbocca, most of all for its delicate saucing.
One of the real standouts at Luigi — it just about leaps off the table — is a Sicilian salad made of orange slices and mixed with goat cheese, diced onion, and olive oil. If beauty lies in simplicity, then here it is. The combination of sweetness and acidity from the orange playing against the onion and oil and bonded by the goat cheese is ridiculously simple, but a superb combination — a salad I would eat anytime.
The only oddity, and it’s a small one, was that the butter arrived at the table in a dish incongruous for a place where much love and care goes into everything else: It was in one of those little plastic cups that nurses use to dispense pills.
On Sunday evenings, Trattoria Da Luigi takes on a different mood, when a small area is cleared for entertainment. The sounds of Latin jazz and old standards waft from the eight-string guitar of Michele Ramo and the voice of singer Heidi Hepler.
Trattoria Da Luigi hits all the high notes. You are well-fed. You get great service. And you leave talking about coming back another time.
The rustic farmhouse décor by Fontana might be described as Mt. Vesuvius meets Royal Oak. Fontana has created it out of a modern glass storefront with the usual open ceiling across which travel heat and air conditioning ductwork and electrical and plumbing lines. But it certainly works, emitting the theme of a villa that suffered the fury of the volcano many years ago and the partly singed faux stone walls and roofing tiles.
To distract the eye from the modern utility lines, light bulbs have been strung intentionally haphazard on open wiring crisscrossing the room, giving it the feel of the lighting you get everywhere on outdoor terraces in Italy — festive as much as ambient.
A squat, five-seat L-shaped bar sits to one side of the dining room, with shelving that displays wines from Cutraro’s native Italy, along with the standard run of bar offerings.
Hand-hewn faux wood beams and crossbeams meet stone block half walls, and roughly stuccoed pillars and walls add more rusticity.
The tables are the standard four-tops, set in peach and tan cloths, with rolled green napkins standing festively straight up in water glasses at each place setting. Votive candles add atmosphere at each table.
Trattoria Da Luigi is quite lovable, and its Italian comfort food menu and service are exceptional. And that’s what makes a good restaurant, and for us a worthwhile new find. Try it.
415 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-542-4444. D Tues.-Sat.