Top Tier

Bacco ascends to culinary heights with its subtle flavors, fresh ingredients and overall simple elegance

Several years ago, a now departed top executive at the Detroit Free Press and his wife were vacationing in St. Tropez on the French Riviera. They decided to catch up with Detroit-area friends staying in another seaside village nearby.

The four agreed to meet at a small provincial restaurant called Le Sarasin, in Ste. Maxime, a much less posh and tiny village, and a ferryboat ride across the bay from St. Tropez.

It was the wife’s first visit to the area, and from the moment she sat down at dinner she began a nonstop stream of excited chatter about every aspect of what she had seen and done.

The first course arrived. Then a second. And finally, as the main course made its way to their table, so did a royally frustrated chef who had been listening. He presented himself stiffly to his guests with dishes in hand and blurted in broken English: “Madame, why do you not please shut up and let the food speak to you!”

Whether or not the chef’s cooking at Le Sarasin was worthy of his demand, his point is well worth noting. There are moments in dining that approach a religious experience, moments when great food plays so powerfully on the senses that it mutes all else.

During recent visits to Bacco in Southfield, four dishes actually stopped conversations, and twice it happened with the same pasta dish, on each of two visits.

The dish is a second course, a plate of two pastas. The first is Cavatelli al Porcini: a fresh porcini sauce with cream and white wine on little shell pasta. The second is a Bacco signature pasta called Strozzapreti Norcina: a sauce made at the restaurant of Italian sausage (made totally in house also), black truffles, tomato and white wine, and then tossed in a pasta directly imported from Italy at a cost of $7 a pound. Most pastas used by restaurants run 60 cents to $1 a pound.

“Strozzapreti” translates as the “priest strangler.” The pasta is rolled by hand and made from the finest durum wheat and purest water of the Abruzzo region. “The eggs they use are so fresh, you can just smell them!” exclaims chef-owner Luciano Del Signore. The “Norcina” part of the name refers to the style of the sauce, which is made as they do it in the village of Norcia, a center of truffle gathering in Tuscany.

Both pastas are almost pure art. The sauces are as subtle as listening to jazz great Bill Evans play piano: You become transported through one layer after another as they unroll distinctly with each forkful, revealing a little more texture and a different flavor with each bite. And that’s just one of the highlights at Bacco.

Overall, the cuisine at Bacco is as close to perfection as we have found in the last year in the Detroit area, which is why we have chosen it as Hour Detroit’s 2005 Restaurant of the Year.

Bacco is a meteor. A top-end, modern Italian restaurant that has excelled so much and so fast in its two-plus years that it could easily be dropped, as it is, into London, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and still be competitive in those markets.

An example of how and why: Carluccio’s is a popular modern-Italian London restaurant that just opened a second location in posh South Kensington. It has a similar look and feel. (Bacco is smaller.) I ate at Carluccio’s just two days before a second visit to Bacco, and I even had two identical dishes at both. And, hands down, Bacco is superior.

In appearance, Bacco is a simple, stylish, bright and airy restaurant. Located on Northwestern Highway in Southfield where Ristorante di Modesta used to be, it opened in 2002 and has gradually become one of the most premier dining spots in the city. Del Signore and his business partner and wife, Monica, and their family also are owners of the longtime Livonia restaurant Fonte d’Amore.

Bacco is surprisingly small, yet it seats 100. When it’s full it feels cramped, although the Del Signores have done the most they can with design to minimize that effect.

A measure of success in Detroit has always been the level of exotic automotive hardware that people drive. And what pulls up every other minute at the valet parking for dinner reveals that Bacco is clearly catering to Detroit’s most affluent crowd: Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Porsche SUVs relegate the mundane Cadillacs, Mercedes and BMWs to the back lot, where transportation for the hired help is stacked.

Inside the front door stands a wall full of wine lockers festooned with brass plaques on which are engraved names of famous clients: Jacques Nasser, departed head of Ford Motor Co., and several architects, lawyers and real estate magnates among them. At Bacco, clients who join a “club” can buy wine at store prices through a retail license the restaurant has, and keep it in a locker to use at lunch or dinner visits. The savings range from 50 to 100 percent over average restaurant pricing.

Behind the check-in stand, which is overseen most evenings by Monica, are a handsome cherrywood bar, two booths and a couple of tables that can handle guest overflow from the dining room.

The decor at Bacco is simple and elegant. Gray walls are dotted with richly framed prints and canvases. A colorful fresco depicting the wine god Bacchus painted by muralist Barney Judge, whose works are also in the Motor City Casino and Shiraz, circles a recessed dome in the ceiling above the center of the dining room.

What may be most surprising about Bacco — Italian for Bacchus — is that Luciano has absolutely no professional training as a chef. What he does in the kitchen comes from a very strong family influence. As a child he watched and then helped his father, Giovanni (John), cook at the family restaurant, Fonte d’Amore in Livonia, which is named for the Italian town from which Giovanni came.

”I’m really self-taught,” Luciano says, adding that his real mentors are in the rows of cookbooks he owns, the most important of which has been what he learned from Chef Mario Batalia. “I had a very brief stint at Schoolcraft College [culinary arts program]. But when I went there I was already running my father’s kitchen, and they wanted to teach me knife skills and peeling garlic. And I said, ‘This is crazy. I’ve been doing this my whole life.’ There wasn’t enough there for me to stay on. So I left.”

In 1988, Luciano’s father opened the Laurel Manor banquet and catering service in Livonia. So the following year, Luciano took over at Fonte d’Amore and began to change it. He succeeded. “People came down from West Bloomfield and Birmingham. And as much as they liked Fonte, it still wasn’t enough,” to really make it work financially. “Which is when I realized it’s all about location, location, location.” That eventually led to the decision to break away from Fonte d’Amore and open Bacco.

Under Giovanni, Fonte d’Amore had been a quality mom-and-pop Italian eatery, reflecting the less expensive style of food marked by generations of immigrants. But Luciano had loftier ideas that had been shaped in part by the summers of his childhood.

“I don’t have many relatives in this country,” Luciano says. “My aunts, uncles, cousins all live over there. Dad keeps a house there still.” During the summers as he was growing up, Luciano was sent back to Italy for several weeks. “My dad and mother would put me on a plane, and my grandparents would be waiting for me in Rome.”

Like one of his sauces, the culture of food that Luciano absorbed during those summers simmered gently and then coalesced to form a direction for his life. It was different from his father’s way of running a restaurant.

“I’ve never skimped,” Luciano says. “I’ve never been a price shopper. I grew up that way. My father … looked at numbers every day. What did this pasta cost? I don’t care. Whatever it cost me I pay for it and I pass it along in the cost of the dish.”

But Luciano is also extremely careful about how he selects his ingredients. While at many — perhaps most — well-known restaurants, everything rolls off those big SYSCO food-service trucks a couple of times a week, Luciano goes to market, such as it is, like the old European chefs (and only a handful in the Detroit area). He knows all his suppliers personally and looks over everything he buys.

In addition to hunting down $7-a-pound pasta from Abruzzo, he imports the priciest lamb in the country from Colorado. “Nobody here wanted to buy this lamb. It’s too expensive. So I share a container with Papa Joe’s [the upscale Birmingham food emporium] every couple of weeks.”

Luciano’s fish comes directly from Plitt Seafood in Chicago. His Kobe beef from Japan arrives via Fairway Packing in Detroit. D’Artagnan in New York supplies his wild game and game birds. Fresh produce is from an old family friend, Tom Maceri & Sons in Detroit. “Our family has been dealing with them for years,” he says.

“It’s very important to develop relationships with the right people,” Luciano points out. “If there’s weather trouble somewhere and things aren’t right yet, and I need to wait another week for the right stuff, I can’t just hear, ‘Hey, the truffles are in.’ And say, ‘Okay, send me over a pound,’ when it’s selling at $3,000 a pound and they are inferior.”

Why so much attention to ingredients? What do they give his food? “It makes cooking simple. The finer the ingredients, the easier it is to get a good end result,” Luciano says. “It’s difficult to take an inferior product and turn it into something superior. It’s simple when you have a wonderful game bird that just needs a simple preparation. And I’m a believer in simple. I’m not a 10-component chef. I’m a three-component chef. I like to get to the point.”

The presentation of food at Bacco, like the composition of a dish, is kept simple. Instead, the attention and effort at Bacco are behind what arrives on the plate, in how those ingredients are selected and then used. For example, another conversation-stopper at our table one night was a totally elementary dish off the daily menu, a very simple veal Milanese: breaded scaloppini of exquisite lightness and flavor. Bacco makes its own bread and then dries its own bread crumbs.

Luciano says that when it comes to veal, most chefs will buy a rack of veal ribs and use it for only one thing: usually either as grilled chops or to cut into scaloppini. “I look at the rack and I say, ‘This side here, with a large eye is good for a grilled chop. But the other side, these three pieces of meat with a little eye and a tail to it … when I pound those out, they are going to make the best scaloppini. So, I use different parts of the rack for different purposes.”

The only negative aspect of our two visits to Bacco had nothing to do with food, but tends to happen with restaurants that are solidly booked. There was a lingering sense of being hurried, particularly on our second visit. Before we had even ordered dessert, we were told that other people were waiting for our table, suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to check out.

Bacco has what may be the most comprehensive restaurant list of Italian wines in the city. Four hundred fine Barolos, Dolcettos, Brunellos, Chiantis, Nebbiolos and Barberas. The wines range in price from $30 and up. But even on the lower end of the list there are some extraordinarily good wines such as Valpolicellas, which are often overlooked as cheap stuff. At $35, for example, we started with a delightful, lighter 1998 Viviani Valpolicella that was at its peak in aging.

As we sat at a table by the window watching cars disgorge mink-coated passengers, we noticed something unusual. People were bringing in cloth carry-bags of wine that they took right to their tables. Luciano says that in addition to huge savings on wine, guests who pay $500 to rent a locker may also bring wine from their cellars at home, for which Bacco charges a $20-a-bottle fee for glassware and uncorking charge, a progressive idea used in other states and called “corkage.”

There’s a lot that is progressive about Bacco. And, for those who want prettier, yes, there are prettier restaurants. But there are very few restaurants that are as well grounded and have defined so clearly what they want to be and then set about achieving it so spectacularly. For that reason alone, designation.

29410 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-356-6600.