Prime Place

Its Italian name says it all. Il Posto translates simply to “the place.” And what a place it is, where meticulous service, spectacularly prepared meals and plush ambience combine to make dining not merely pleasant, but a genuine Italian experience.
Prime Place
Photo: Joe Vaughn

At a table set for lunch under a grape arbor that shaded the terrace of a 300-year-old farmhouse owned by a British wine exporter in the Provence region of France, the talk turned to the annual autumn truffle hunting that was about to descend on the region. The search for the brown nuggets of culinary gold that grow underground — and sell for anywhere from about $400 a pound to 10 times that amount for the very best — happens every October through December, and is something akin to Michigan’s morel season.

It is done with trained pigs or dogs that can pick up the scent of the just-ripened truffles and dig for them, usually around the base of chestnut and hazelnut trees. The owner of the farmhouse, whose family lived there for two generations, announced that actually, the brown French truffles were not as good as the Italian white truffles that grew a couple of hundred miles away. White truffles, he said, have the most delicate flavor and scent, and are the most sensual food on earth.

When he was a child, the wine exporter explained, his father would pack the family into the car each autumn and drive from the farmhouse east along the Riviera coast road, cross into Italy and to the town of Alba, in the Piedmonte region, the cradle of the white truffle. Each year the family stayed at the same hotel, ate at the same restaurant, and always started their meal with the same dish: a truffle risotto.

Autumn in Alba, our host explained, is an eating ceremony around the truffle. Truffles are cooked in sauces; they are sliced and stuffed under the skin of chickens and capons; cooked whole in white wine with chopped pancetta bacon; served on their own with the juices; and they are even made into ice cream. But it was the simple elegance of a risotto in a cream sauce and the heady aroma of truffles wafting across a table that made the host’s childhood family trips so memorable.

In an annual pageant, the chef would arrive tableside looking very serious, a bowl of steaming creamy risotto in hand. He would carefully spoon a serving onto each plate. Then, he would unseal a large glass jar containing several wrinkled-looking truffles resting on a bed of white rice.

A small scale would be placed to one side, and a large truffle extracted and weighed. The weight was called out to the waiter, who would write it down. The chef would then go around to each risotto plate, present the truffle for observation and acceptance, and grate raw truffle onto the risotto until told to stop. The truffle would be weighed again, the weight announced once more, and the number of ounces consumed calculated and added to the bill.

At Il Posto, in Southfield, they do not weigh the truffle or charge by the ounce, but they do make the creamy risotto, and a large glass jar containing the “tartufi” does appear at the tableside, along with chef and owner Giovanni (Gianni) Belsito, who ceremoniously grates them to make one of the most delectable risottos in Detroit.

The same seriousness about food in Alba is very much at the heart of Il Posto, which is about as traditional an Italian city restaurant as can be found. Right down to a kind of service taught in Italian hotel schools, a bookkeeper (his wife and partner, Cerstin) who has a desk in the dining room and writes out the customer’s bills by hand, and dishes that are rolled to the table on serving carts and plated there.

From the service, to the food, to the look and feel of the place, Il Posto is a corner of urbanity and sophistication bundled up, transported and set down in America, earning the cachet of being Hour Detroit’s 2006 Restaurant of the Year. Yet, Belsito says, “I think that a lot of people don’t quite understand what I am doing here. I want to give the genuine Italian dining experience.”

The interior of Il Posto, which opened in 1997, is offset by several archways, some framed in brown-gold swag drapes, which open into a two-tiered dining room set off by warm cream-of-tomato colored walls dotted with Baroque art and lined with deep, plush semicircular banquettes. Dinner-jacketed waiters — about a third of them Italian and trained in Italy — patrol the dining room, working each table with total efficiency.
In the kitchen the main chef, Daniele dell’Acqua, barks orders and cooks while Belsito, usually dressed in chef’s whites also, darts between overseeing whatever leaves the kitchen on the serving carts, to checking the dining room for even the minutest problem.

When a discussion turns to what is the best Italian restaurant in Detroit, three seem to make it to the top of just about any short list: Bacco, Ristorante Café Cortina and Il Posto. But of those, which is best? Well, that’s like asking which is better music: rock, country or classical.

Bacco is Bono: the superstar, modern, hip, a perfect blend of Italy and America riding on the exquisite mastery of the kitchen and its chef-owner, Luciano Del Signore. Café Cortina is the Charlie Daniels Band: great organization, family-driven, distinctive and traditional with purity and a polished product. Il Posto, on the other hand, is The Three Tenors — Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Operatic in reach, and striving to be the most classical in high Italian culture, and always through the equal combination of food, service and place. Belsito is the conductor, a classic Italian with an equally classic American story.

Belsito was born near the close of World War II into a struggling working-class family of nine children in Calabria. The family meals were so meager that they rarely included meat. The closest they came was his mother’s weekly Sunday dinner that sometimes consisted of one meatball for each child with spaghetti and sauce. “That was it; you’re done,” Belsito says, clapping his hands once to emphasize the one meatball. “It was very simple food, but she was an excellent cook.”

Belsito’s father began taking the 7-year-old Gianni each day to the local café, where the owner put him to work delivering trays of drinks to customers. There he got a  glimpse into his own future. “The people, they would give me tips. Fifty lire, maybe,” Belsito says. “And I said: ‘Holy cow, I can make money for myself.’”

When he was 13, young Gianni persuaded his parents to let him live with an uncle who had a job working in railroad construction in Munich, Germany. His uncle, Pepino, lived in a hostel occupied by about 60 migrant Italian workers and their families. And since he was too young to work legally, the collective assigned Gianni to shop each day for lunch and dinner, and to make sandwiches for all the men to take to work. Each worker pitched in 1.5 Deutsche marks, Belsito recalls, and he had his first job making food for money.

While in Germany, he saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a hotel and catering school in Hamburg and asked his uncle if he could attend. He ended his first year at the top of his class and transferred to a similar school in Stresa, back in Italy, where he took classes during the day and worked at night as a busboy in a local restaurant. The three-year course in Stresa required that students elect a career path, so Belsito set out to be a maître d’hôtel. During his summers, he obtained intern positions that included a stint on a cruise ship as a busboy. That gave him his first glimpse of the United States, when the ship docked in Miami and Los Angeles.

After school, Belsito’s first job was in an Iranian restaurant in Milan, where his only task was to shine silver. He moved through various positions as a waiter, then eventually as a senior waiter at Milan’s elegant Hotel Principe di Savoia.

“There, I learned most of what I do. It was a wonderful experience, a great place where everything must be perfect,” he says.

In the 1970s, Belsito returned to school to become certified as a sommelier and to take courses to learn kitchen skills. But it was a crisis in the Hotel Villa Principessa in Lucca, where he was headwaiter, that sent him in another direction. One day the chef quit, and the owner asked him to take over. “I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “But he said I had no choice. I must do it until he got a new chef. It worked, and I actually enjoyed it very much. It gave experience for me in the one area that I did not know: the kitchen.”

By 1984, when he had worked just about every major restaurant position, Belsito saw an ad in a Milan newspaper seeking help for a new Italian restaurant that was to open at Disney World in Orlando. Belsito, who spoke no English, applied and was hired as a waiter. It turned out to be a disaster.

When a group of 14 people, the new staff and their families, landed in Orlando, nobody met the plane. None of the Italians spoke English. They had no idea where to go or what to do. Fortunately, a good Samaritan who took pity on the group knew of an empty apartment in town, and helped them get temporary lodging, and all 14 people squeezed in. “We had no money. We slept on the floor and covered ourselves with our clothes,” Belsito remembers. The restaurant owner was located but did not treat his new staff well.

Belsito soon found a job at another Italian restaurant. But eventually, he realized that he just wasn’t ready to take on America. After two years, he returned to Milan and found the job of a lifetime, managing a large banquet operation that had multiple facilities and wasn’t doing too well. In one year, he built up the business substantially, he says. “In 1987, we served 95,000 heads that year. I made for him $8.5 million,” Belsito says. The job gave him the confidence to manage, a confidence he realized had been lacking. “In October  1989, I said to myself, ‘You know, now I have arrived. I am where I want to be. I am on top. Now I think I know everything that I want to know about restaurants.  Now, I go back to the United States.’”

Belsito ended up in Englewood, N.J., opening a new restaurant for an investor. But a customer there, a real estate broker who had befriended him, urged Belsito to consider a place he knew well, Naples, Fla. Finally, in 1994, with $2,500 in his pocket, Belsito struck out on his own and went to Naples. “I don’t know nobody. Nobody. The only thing I have is a phone number for the broker … and I call him and I say, ‘George, I’m here. Can we talk?’”

With the help of the broker and the owner of a shopping plaza that had a vacant storefront, Belsito started Il Posto Café. As it took off, Il Posto expanded into a full-blown restaurant. But there was a problem. It did extremely well in the winter months. “Unfortunately, summertime there will kill you,” Belsito says. “It’s too seasonal.” But he had also noticed that the addresses of a lot of his winter customers were in the Detroit area.

With the advice and help of some Detroit customers, Belsito came up for a visit in 1997. He found the present location, which had been a club called Mardi Gras.

“It was very bad in here at that time,” Belsito says of what he found.

He sold the Florida restaurant to two men who worked in his kitchen and moved north. With the help of an investor, the place was redecorated, rooms were moved around and a bar added near the entrance.

Belsito started with a core Italian staff of waiters and kitchen help, including Chef Daniele dell’Acqua. In the eight years since Il Posto opened, only three of the waiters have left and the menu has stayed the same.

The menu at Il Posto has the usual listing of items, but what sets it apart is the quality of the preparation, the cooking, and a little bit of extravagance.

For example, in addition to the seasonal truffle risotto, Il Posto makes another, a piece of culinary showmanship that is wheeled tableside. The risotto arrives from the kitchen at maximum heat and is poured into the hollowed-out center of a large wheel of top-grade Parmigiano-Reggiano. As the piping-hot risotto is stirred inside the cheese, the walls of the Parmesan melt into it, an incredibly rich dish.

The pastas are all well worth trying. The gnocchi is made in-house with potatoes, and served with a Piedmontese cream sauce made with four cheeses.

A constant favorite is the Pappardelle Tre Bocconi, pasta garnished with Parma ham, veal meatballs, bacon, peas, mushrooms, tomato and Romano cheese. A dish called Orecchiette al Ragu d’Agnello is a savory lamb ragu sauce tossed with small round-ish pasta whose name translates as “little ears.”

Main dishes that should be tried include the Involtino di Pollo Alla Fiorentina, a flattened chicken breast stuffed with spinach and Taleggio cheese, rolled and pan-cooked. Or the Medaglioni di Vitello al Carciofi, tender veal medallions sautéed with fresh artichokes, back olives, capers and rosemary. A dessert cart is also wheeled tableside and usually has a half-dozen choices, periodically including fruit tarts in addition to standards such as cannoli and tiramisu.

On a cold January day recently, Belsito, who grew up in a household that could barely afford just one meatball per child on Sundays, was on the phone to a source, looking for truffles, one of the most expensive food products in the world. “I think I can get some truffles just once more this year from my source,” he confided, his eyes getting bigger and a smile crossing his face. “But, he wants $1,800. I don’t know. Maybe. But after that, it is finished.” Until next fall, that is.

29110 Franklin Rd. (at Northwestern Highway), Southfield; 248-827-8070 L & D Mon.-Fri. D-Sat. h