Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence received its first Michelin star in 1982. The second came in 1983 and by 1993 it had received three stars. One of these was lost two years later, though eventually regained, and has been maintained successfully ever since. People flock to it. The internationally celebrated restaurant occupies the ground floor of an 18th-century palace. The table cloths are white, the waiters are suited, and the main dining room is adjoined by perhaps the most extensive (and expensive) wine cellar in the world. Enoteca pulls such weight in Italian fine-dining that it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that the chef, Annie Féolde, is a Frenchwoman. She’s also the first woman to receive the coveted three stars in Italy.
Enoteca is among Luciano DelSignore’s favorite restaurants. One of a handful of veteran chefs in metro Detroit, DelSignore ran his family’s restaurant, Fonte d’Amore in Livonia, for more than a decade before opening the critically acclaimed modern Italian restaurant, Bacco Ristorante, in Southfield. In 2010, he added the popular pizza chain Bigalora — which now has locations across metro Detroit from Ann Arbor to Royal Oak to Rochester Hills — to his growing empire. For years, however, he has been incubating something bigger. This month, DelSignore is expected to open the restaurant Pernoi in Birmingham in collaboration with old friend and highly decorated chef, Takashi Yagihashi.
Japanese-born and French-trained, Yagihashi has a unique skill for merging flavors across continents into something that is always, and often elusively, greater than its parts. He self-deprecatingly terms this “confusion food,” but it has won him some of the most prestigious culinary accolades in the country. In 2003, Yagihashi was named the best chef in the Midwest from the James Beard Foundation while running the Farmington Hills fine-dining classic, Tribute, which closed its doors in 2009. And in 2013, he earned a Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant, Takashi, in Chicago.
Together, DelSignore says, they hope to inaugurate metro Detroit’s own testament to all of the finest ingredients and luxuries that a restaurant can offer. “Everything from the plates and the tablecloths and the stemware. You’re going to know you’re somewhere important,” he says without a hint of facetiousness.
In an industry as high-strung and defined by personal branding as the restaurant industry, the very notion of working with others often reads as naïve and, in the long-run, untenable. There has been discussion on how these veteran chefs will be able to put their egos aside to collaborate. Yet, the shelving of culinary ego is not what is at play here. Rather, it holds quite central to the premise of Pernoi. Though DelSignore may not have said it outright, the goal is to bypass conventions of who, and how, and where things should be cooked (never neglecting the French of course, so coincidentally — or not — a bit like Enoteca Pinchiorri). And, in doing so, bring the quality one would experience at a Michelin-star-earning restaurant to our city. There is nothing particularly humble about that.
Originally intended to direct motorists to food and lodging while on the road, the Michelin Guide has since evolved into the world’s foremost criterion for evaluating fine dining. The guide states that restaurants are anonymously judged on the quality of their products; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience; value for money; consistency between inspector’s visits. One star denotes a high-quality restaurant that’s worth a stop. Two stars merits a detour and three stars warrants a special trip. Servicing only California, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. in the U.S., there are only 15 restaurants in the U.S. that boast three stars. Should the guide make its way to Michigan some day, here’s to hopes of Detroit joining that list.
“Pernoi is an invented word,” DelSignore says. On a rainy Thursday in mid-June, he is seated in his personal office, which adjoins Bacco. The ground is covered in thick carpet and the space is anchored by a heavy wooden desk. Apart from the endless rows of books on pasta-making stuffed into the looming bookshelves, it feels a bit like the suburban office of a successful civil attorney. A prevailing reminder that much of the labor that goes into building a glamorous restaurant, can be decidedly unglamorous, and often has nothing to do with the food.
“In Italian it’s two words, per and noi which means ‘for us,’ ” DelSignore continues. “But if you look at it as one word, it has a pronunciation that is mysterious. It could sound Italian, it could sound French, it could sound Japanese.” Up to you.
The name is a fitting summation of DelSignore and Yagihashi’s almost two-decade long friendship. The pair met when Yagihashi opened Tribute. “Luciano would come to Tribute and I would go to Bacco,” Yagihashi says. Soon, they began gathering their six children, each has three, for play dates. DelSignore says, “I was attracted to Takashi because of the great respect I had for him as a man, as a father, as a good human being, and as a crazy-talented chef.” Eventually, mutual friends suggested the two open a restaurant together. The challenge, though, was translating their synchrony into a full-fledged culinary enterprise. And that is precisely what they’ve spent the past 15 years doing.
DelSignore’s family hails from Abruzzo, a vegetal Italian region nestled along the Adriatic coastline. He’s been back almost 50 times. Though part of that is for culinary inspiration, he admits that there is an inevitable distancing that occurs when Italian food is attempted outside its natural habitat. What DelSignore tries to take away from the country instead, is its unparalleled sense of hospitality. For the observant, that can be found in the oft-overlooked details, such as the way the silverware is laid out on a table or how the salt and pepper is presented.
Yagihashi, too, goes home to Japan frequently. “I have an unbelievable mother. She’s 94. I go back twice a year to see her.” He says Japanese food, like Italian food, is very ingredient-driven so it’s hard to replicate in the United States. So, like DelSignore, what he tries to bring overseas is the service. “I miss having great service because I get so used to the Japanese way being the normal way and sometimes, American service doesn’t really compare. I want to bring that to America.”
What does exist here, DelSignore says, is access to the world’s greatest assortment of ingredients. “I’m cooking with Italian techniques, but it might be with fresh fish from the Pacific.” Yagihashi adds, “I try to take normal French food in a different direction. [With Japanese food] I try to be close to the edge, but if you’re too close, it’s not Japanese anymore so I stop right before.”
The food at Pernoi, with regards to technique, will not stray too far from conventional parameters. Italian will be Italian, French will be French, Japanese will be Japanese. Each chef will command a section of the menu — written weekly in order to incorporate seasonal produce — to serve as an independent showcase of their mettle. Every dish will serve as a singular offering within a fluid, multinational, and collaborative whole.
The rest of Pernoi’s cast includes Executive Chef, Justin Fulton, pastry chef, Tanya Fallon, and restaurant manager and sommelier, Lelañea Fulton (no relation to Justin). An alumnus of some of New York’s finest restaurants, namely Daniel and French Louie, Justin will bring a well-honed French technique to the menu. Fallon — who was Yagihashi’s assistant at celebrated Ambria in Chicago — has since worked at several metro Detroit hotspots including Vinsetta Garage and Union Woodshop. While Lelañea was quite famously described by The New York Times food critic, Pete Wells, as “dressed like one of Charlie’s Angels working undercover as a sommelier” when working at New York’s Dirty French.
“What Takashi and Luciano are to Detroit is so near and dear to people’s hearts,” offers Justin, “so these two coming together at the pinnacle of their careers speaks to the nature of the restaurant industry here.” That said, it’s hard to predict how things may unfold in this still nascent industry. Yet, the arrival of a place like Pernoi suggests that, at least through its food, the tacit pride Detroiters have long had in their city, has begun to find form.