Restaurants come and restaurants go. They change ownership. They are redecorated. Sometimes there is a new name, sometimes there is not. Change can be for the better.
About a year ago, the Bella Piatti restaurant in Birmingham began undergoing a transformation. Actually, more like a transfiguration that has left it markedly improved in every way — with new energy, new owners, new service and kitchen staffs, and a new menu featuring traditional Italian dishes.
The food is solidly good, and everything about this redo has made the restaurant more inviting and another pleasant addition to the dining hub of the Detroit area. Bella Piatti’s interior, by designer Jeff Fontana, could loosely be called mock-Italian Renaissance, and is full of whimsy and originality.
The service is also a big improvement. It is attentive, efficient, and knowledgeable under the eye of general manager Kevin Mazziotta.
The food also changed. In its previous incarnation, Bella Piatti did somewhat edgier, adventurous dishes — grilled fresh sardines, for example. Or, buckwheat gnocchi with cabbage and duck ragout.
Now the menu is very much back-to-basics Italian, with solid traditional dishes prepared by Francesco Apollonia, a native of Venice who has worked in restaurants around Detroit for more than 20 years.
Apollonia’s previous stops include the kitchens of what used to be Ann Arbor’s fine-dining magnet, the now-closed Moveable Feast, and at Jimmy Schmidt’s Italian chain, Chianti, which made a brief splash in the 1990s.
A day before our recent visit, I called Bella Piatti to ask if I could have a table for three people. To my surprise they took the reservation. These days, most restaurants usually won’t hold tables for fewer than six people, which means checking in on arrival and a long wait at the bar. We were seated within minutes of arrival.
Bella Piatti is fairly small, with a capacity of 65 in a room dominated by a large, wide U-shaped bar that seems always busy, and heavily patronized by a mix of single diners, couples just looking for a quick bite, and people waiting for tables.
A little background: Bella Piatti was originally the creation of restaurateur Mindy VanHellemont (now Mindy Lopus). She also created one of my favorite Birmingham restaurants, Tallulah, and then Red Crown in a former gas station in Grosse Pointe Park.
Lopus has since sold her interests in all three, and Bella Piatti is now owned and managed by Liz Cutraro of West Bloomfield, whose husband Nino Cutraro either has owned or been a partner in several restaurants around Detroit over the last 20 years.
The new owners have used, to the better, Fontana’s dramatic design touches. See-through divider curtains made of what appears to be a light chain-mail metal hang from the ceiling to act as clever divisions, separating the bar from the more intimate table seating. The curtain gives a shimmery and gauzy effect.
The walls are extraordinary. They’re covered with massive murals, huge faces, and still-life details blown from Tintoretto-like paintings, blown up 100 times their original size or more.
The lighting is soft from old crystal chandeliers, augmented by discreet accent lights above which the high open ceiling disappears into the blackened guts of plumbing, piping, and air-conditioning.
The tables are set in a light café-au-lait linen and matching napkins. Seating is a mix of banquettes and cushy, wide high-back leather seats.
We began our dinner with three first courses: a bowl of fresh, succulent, white wine-steamed mussels, a rolled eggplant in a tomato sauce, and sausage in puff pastry with a béchamel sauce, all deftly prepared and pleasant.
For a second course, three of us shared an order of pasta, orecchiette with rapini and pancetta bits, cooked in olive oil; the rich pieces of bacon jazzed up the rounds of pasta ears with a touch of red pepper flakes and fresh garlic balanced the slight bitterness of the rapini. It was definitely my choice for the most distinct and inviting dish of the evening.
For main courses, one standout was veal scallopini, done in the Northern Italian style: a tender piece of veal about a quarter-inch thick, gently pan-sautéed with fresh sage and white wine, topped with thin slices of prosciutto, and served with cubed, pan-finished potatoes. We also liked the subtle combination of roasted quail with mushroom risotto and duck leg confit on polenta.
Bella Piatti’s menu also has a range of first courses that include a creamy burrata cheese dressed with baby arugula and tiny heirloom tomatoes. And, for the more adventurous eaters, an octopus carpaccio is served with shaved fennel and baby tomatoes, all dressed in a rich olive oil.
The menu includes a lot of standard plates, and has featured (when available): in meat choices, roast chicken and veal osso bucco; in the fish items there is a dish of seared day-boat scallops, and in the pasta offerings, potato gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce.
The wine list is dominated by an unusually large selection in the $45 to $60 a bottle price range. This is notable because usually wine lists do the reverse: most everything is highly priced and only one or two bottles are in the $50 range, as if to embarrass you away from the cheapest thing on the list.
The Detroit restaurant scene has undergone a lot of change in the last decade, much of it difficult and connected to what we can now call our “formerly” depressed economy. We have watched the restaurant industry’s ups and downs and re-emerge stronger and more imaginative. Bella Piatti’s route to where it is today has been very solid. Its owners have created a good, desirable small Italian restaurant that is different and very inviting.
And in that regard, it is a real success.
167 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-494-7110. L Tue.-Fri. D Tue.–Sat.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: email@example.com