Long before 1400 Woodward Ave. became San Morello, downtown Detroit’s newest restaurant, it was home to a jewelry company. That became a menswear store, then a furrier, later a drugstore, and most recently, from 1997 to around 2012, a hair company called Eastern Wigs. But it first started as T.B. Rayl Co., a hardware store that occupied the building beginning in 1915. T.B. Rayl Co. sold everything from tools to gas stoves to sporting goods under the motto, “There Really Isn’t Any Better Place.”
In 1925, the company wrote to the Detroit Free Press to celebrate their 50 years in business, through which they’d seen Detroit grow from a mid-sized city to the fourth largest in the country with a population hovering around 1 million (the city’s population peaked at 1.86 million in 1950). “We look back with some regret for the passing of old Detroit, a comfortable, enjoyable town of about 100,000 inhabitants, who were seemingly well satisfied with the town and themselves,” the proprietors wrote. “The town has grown, but Rayl’s has grown faster.” One wonders what T.B Rayl Co., which closed indefinitely in 1958, would say now.
In numbers only, however, the Detroit of T.B. Rayl Co. and the Detroit of today remain pretty consistent, with the population hovering around the same figure it was when the company first set up shop on Woodward. There is perhaps another unifying factor. That being the unwavering appreciation for good, hearty, Italian food. If that’s the case, San Morello is here to serve. The restaurant’s much-anticipated opening at the end of December last year has brought a deserved buzz to this corner in the heart of downtown Detroit.
San Morello is part of NoHo Hospitality Group — the collection of restaurants and bars run by James Beard Award-winning Italian-American chef Andrew Carmellini, Luke Ostrom, and metro Detroit native Josh Pickard — and is part of a three-plus year project in the making. It’s also the group’s 15th project to date. They’ve previously launched New York City favorites Locanda Verde, the Dutch, and Lafayette as well as several restaurants in Baltimore. The time and effort to make each one come to life never changes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a standalone with 40 seats or a hotel that has a 100-seat restaurant with room service, it’s kind of all the same amount of work,” he says.
But Detroit is also a different city, and Carmellini, who, having grown up in the Cleveland area, claims Midwestern roots, recognized that early on. To know Detroit is to spend time here, day in and day out. Not just in the seven square-mile radius that makes up downtown, but in as much of its 139 square-mile entirety as you can. Discovering the city became the basis of his approach to opening a restaurant in Detroit. “I’m naturally kind of a traveler and a little bit of a map geek, so I rented a car and drove around to all the neighborhoods,” he says. After three years of thoughtfully planning, designing, hiring, training, and discovering a complicated city with no shortage of character, Carmellini and his team — which includes head chef Cory Barberio and executive pastry chef Jessica Leung — debuted San Morello.
The best time to come to the restaurant is in the late afternoon, just before the sun sets, when it’s drenched in the light coming through its big panel windows. The design, courtesy of NYC-based Gachot Studios, has a warm modern mid century look that’s enhanced by the brown and white marble checkerboard flooring and colorful wall tiles. That, combined with a detail-oriented and curated drinks list featuring house cocktails and Italian wine, and the ability to people watch down Woodward, will make you do a double check to make sure you’re really in Detroit. At the center of the restaurant is a three-drawer oven, which will warm your bread, before your server — who most likely will be wearing green Vans because they are part of the uniform — brings it to your table.
San Morello is a place that demands an appetite, but also doesn’t carelessly fill you up. A robust appetizer list offers must-have sheep’s milk ricotta, served with hot honey and garlic, and a refreshing tuna tartare, accompanied with green olives, chili, and crispy farro.
Wood-fired pizza is also always up for grabs. If you go during lunch, a fennel sausage and pistachio pesto combo called the “Sicilian” is ready and waiting to be devoured. The house specials include swordfish, and braised lamb shank (a highly popular item according to Carmellini). However, the pasta seems to be where San Morello truly shines. Everything from black shell puttanesca with ruby red shrimp and calamari to the mezze rigatoni, is
For me, the dish at the heart of San Morello — at least on the afternoon that I went — was My Grandmother’s Ravioli. It was a simple, yet rich dish of doughy squares filled with veal, beef, and pork topped with red sauce. Carmellini has been doing that dish on and off in restaurants for a while. The first time was all the way back in 1998 at Cafe Boulud, one of acclaimed French chef Daniel Boulud’s early ventures, where Carmellini was the chef de
cuisine. “On Sundays, we used to make that ravioli as a special — a chefed-up version of the meat ravioli my grandmother would make,” he says.
Carmellini is actually less interested in what other chefs were doing, and more in tune with home cooking. Whether it was the food his grandmother made or what he saw in his travels to Italy. “That’s where I found the most soul with that kind of cooking,” he says. My Grandmother’s Ravioli perfectly reflects this ethos and anchors downtown Detroit’s newest edible edition.
When you’re done with lunch, or dinner, do your best to not skip out on dessert. The Sicilian Pistachio cake is a fool-proof option, especially since it’s paired with olive oil gelato — a welcome palate cleanser after the carb-filled extravaganza you may have just had.
From its days as a hardware store to a bustling restaurant, this corner of Woodward and Gratiot has gone through many changes. Just like the city, it’s good to remember that 1400 Woodward Ave. has never been a blank slate, but instead housed a building teeming with a forgotten history. Right now, we’re lucky to be witnessing its latest reincarnation, which just happens to include really good Italian food.
San Morello, 1400 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-209-4700. B, L, & D Daily. Br. Sat.-Sun.
NoHo Hospitality Group’s Other Properties at the Shinola Hotel
There’s more than just San Morello at downtown Detroit’s newest hotel. NoHo Hospitality Group’s collection of food and beverage restaurants include an old-school cocktail lounge and a recently opened fried chicken joint.
Tucked away in a corner of the hotel and accessible with an entrance from Parker’s Alley (named after Thomas Parker, one of Detroit’s first black landowners), Evening Bar serves up craft cocktails and food, including a fondue pot to share with Michigan cheddar and local crudités.
With a nod to a Shinola watch of the same name, this recently opened American beer hall features Midwestern craft beers, big-screen TVs and Ping Pong tables, and fried chicken from its sister establishment, Penny Red’s. A cash-free establishment, The Brakeman only accepts tokens, which are available for purchase at the entrance.
Fried chicken carryout spot Penny Red’s has what it calls “Buckets of Damn Fine Fried Chicken” from five to 20 pieces, along with sandwiches, including the K-Town Cutlet, complete with kimchi BBQ, honey butter biscuits, potato salad, and fries.