Andiamo Dearborn is one of the most attractive restaurants in metro Detroit. Not that it’s apparent from the outside. But once you pull into the entrance from Michigan Avenue and have been relieved of your car by a phalanx of valet parking attendants, you find yourself face to face with an energetic, engaging staff, and a place that puts a smile on your face.
Just past the sunken bar, the dining room has a sleek, cool, modern feel, accented by a see-through glass wine vault that gives the place flair as it follows the curve of one wall.
The opposite side of the room is framed by windows and glass doors and looks out onto a sea of green, with trees rising up from the banks of the Rouge River below. A deck also serves as space for outdoor dining and evening entertainment.
And, despite the dining room’s energy, the noise level from a mix of young and middle-aged diners remains comfortable enough for conversation. Seating is spacious, and the staff is plentiful and welcoming.
Andiamo Dearborn opened in 2003 and occupies the space once home to the Chicago Road House, which was basically taken down to its steel frame and built anew.
It’s one of 10 restaurants in the Andiamo group, which is one of the dining success stories in the Detroit area of the last 20 years. By and large, it’s one of the two or three most successful restaurant groups in its particular category: chains that struggle to keep individuality within their units.
General Manager Antonio Gagnon and Chef Jim Oppat say they would like Andiamo Dearborn to break from its current identity. “We would like to be viewed less as a chain,” Oppat says. “I like the word ‘family’ better. I think it’s more appropriate.”
Like most of the other Andiamos, the menu in Dearborn is rustic-Italian and served in large portions. Judging by Andiamo’s continued popularity, theirs is an approach that metro Detroit diners find perennially appetizing.
Andiamo Dearborn is casual, along the lines of trattoria-style food. It offers a blend of traditional Italian dishes and Americanized Italian food, very much a combination of the classic dishes of Aldo Ottaviani, the chef who first set the direction of Andiamo, and of Oppat, who arrived eight months ago.
Gagnon says that roughly half the menu — mostly the pasta dishes — is decided at Andiamo’s main office, and that Oppat, the former Zodiac chef at Neiman Marcus in Troy, has leeway with the rest of the offerings.
Over the years, I have eaten at five of the 10 Andiamos at least twice in each and several more times than that at the dining room on Telegraph near Maple, and each is consistent with the other. This one is no different.
The first mark of a good restaurant is how you are greeted when you arrive and then again at the table, and both the reception and attention at Andiamo Dearborn are friendly and welcoming.
On my first visit, the waiter started out being very attentive, but then seemed to forget about us. On a second visit, the service was flawless.
The food is extremely well prepared and flavorful, although the portions of some dishes are astoundingly big, while others are normal.
For example, the bruschetta first course for one person was four gigantic slices of rustic Tuscan bread with very sweet, fresh tomato, basil, and Parmesan cheese, almost a meal for two.
Likewise, a first course of Hungarian hot peppers and homemade sausage in a tomato sauce could have fed four. And on another visit, the tenderloin tips of beef with portobello mushrooms was also huge, but delicious. Yet, an exquisitely fresh shrimp with leeks and garlic was a standard appetizer size. Other first-course offerings include fried calamari, shrimp cocktail, risotto balls in tomato sauce, grilled portobello mushrooms, and an antipasto platter.
Main courses run the gamut of assortments in fish, meat, and pasta dishes, none of which beat a particular path to individuality, but all those we tried in two visits were well prepared, though they were not always well served.
It was after three very encouraging first courses during my first visit that bumps in an otherwise even and pleasant dinner were encountered, bumps attributable to our not-very-attentive server rather than to the kitchen.
Empty plates sat for a long time before a busboy appeared and asked if we wanted them removed. Yes, we said.
Eventually, our waiter did resurface with our main courses. But there was a problem.
I had ordered a pasta dish of green-and-white linguine with peas, prosciutto, onion, and pieces of chicken tenderloin in a cream sauce. No complaint about the flavors, but the linguine was stuck together and the cream sauce separating — all pretty good signs that someone decided to microwave a cold dish, which is sometimes the kiss of death to pasta.
By comparison, the two other main courses, a thick veal picatta-like dish with capers and artichokes, and a scallop dish with risotto and chanterelle mushrooms, arrived close to cold. After tasting through them, however, it was easy to surmise the food would have been much different had it been served hot.
On a second visit the following day, we had none of the same problems. Service was exceptional, food arrived warm and well prepared, and we enjoyed the evening so much that we hung round on the outdoor terrace after dinner to listen to the band and have another glass of wine.
I have a little bit of first-hand knowledge that at Andiamo, the food originates from the highest level of ingredients.
About 18 months ago, I was invited to make pasta at Andiamo’s central kitchen in Warren at 6 on an autumn morning with the two Italian women who daily make all the gnocchi, ravioli, and assorted fresh pasta that is distributed to Andiamos around the metro area. I have eaten that pasta and the sauces that are provided to all the restaurants, and I took some home and made it there also. I know the food and the kitchens are top-notch.
So, how do such disconnections happen?
Quality control is a more challenging endeavor when 10 restaurants are involved, rather than just one. From this end of restaurant watching, I see it time and again.
Yet overall, Andiamo Dearborn is basically a good restaurant with good food, providing you get the waiter we had on our second visit rather than our first.
21400 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-359-3300. L Mon.-Sat. D daily. Andiamo Dearborn