March 22, 2012 at 8:17 am

Molly Abraham

Elegant & casual blend well at Angelina Italian Bistro

When Angelina Italian Bistro opened in fall 2008, the proprietors couldn't count on attracting many neighbors to the airy space in the Madison Theatre building, simply because there weren't many of them.

How times have changed. Now Angelina can depend on two crowds: those who come downtown for events at the Detroit Opera House, Comerica Park and other venues, and a second group of neighbors who live in apartments or lofts within five minutes or so of the restaurant at Grand Circus Park.

The other evening, as the early crowd left the handsome many-windowed dining room heading for the Barry Manilow concert, the neighbors started arriving.

As co-proprietor Tom Agosta remarked, they know to wait until after 8 p.m. on show nights.

Dinner of contemporary Italian fare at Angelina is certainly worth the wait.

It's an interesting hybrid, elegant enough for special occasions and casual enough for a quick glass of wine and a shared platter of house-cured meats or a pizza topped with pancetta, fontina, mushrooms and scallions.

In addition to the main dining room, there are two other seating arrangements.

Nine may be accommodated at the antipasto bar in front of the big busy kitchen, and another 35 at the U-shaped bar that is separated from the dining room by a row of metal sculptures.

Those who choose seats at the antipasto bar get a glimpse of the kitchen activity, including Tyrone Bell making the fresh pastas that are a hallmark of the place.

This is a from-scratch kitchen with high standards, now in the hands of chef Steve Paulson, a graduate of the culinary program at Schoolcraft College.

He is charged with a menu that is to the point. There are just 10 entrees, including such pasta dishes as gnocchi in Parmesan cream sauce, littleneck clam fettuccine and pappardelle in a very robust Bolognese sauce, augmented by seasonal specials, sometimes fresh fish.

Beyond pasta dishes are such selections as grilled Delmonico steak in demi-glace served with the newly popular Brussels sprouts and handsomely bronze-seared salmon.

Among the a la carte salads is an especially appealing one made with Bibb lettuce, candied almonds, grapefruit and red onion in honey mustard vinaigrette.

Best way to begin dinner at Angelina is with one of the assortments of smoked and cured meats and fish, all of which are accompanied by a heap of fresh arugula, some whole-grain mustard, pecorino Romano cheese and marinated olives with the pits removed, a nice touch.

They come in three sharable assortments, one with such meats as sopressata, mortadella and salami, another with an array of house-smoked and cured fish including trout and salmon, and a vegetarian third with pickled vegetables and marinated onions, all handsomely presented on white china. Ray De Loof does the smoking and pickling.

Some of the accompanying bread, served with a trio of honey butter, olive oil and white bean spread, is made by pastry chef Raed Qahwash, who studied at Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore., and also prepares the outstanding desserts.

At dinner recently, his confections included a subtle and light panna cotta fragrant with fresh lemongrass and cardamom and garnished with fresh fruit.

Another was a memorable cheesecake made with mascarpone cheese that struck just the right balance between fluffy and firm styles of cheesecake.

Don't be surprised to see Qahwash behind the bar. He's also the bar manager, whose culinary talents turned out to be a bonus.

There's no doubt that having not just one, but two hands-on proprietors, Mike Viviano and Tom Agosta, is one of the reasons Angelina has been able to succeed in the notoriously tough restaurant business.

(313) 222-1475

There are just 10 entrees on the menu, including pan-seared salmon. / Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News
More Molly Abraham