Three years into its run under proprietors Nino and Liz Cutraro, Bella Piatti, the jewel box of a restaurant in the heart of downtown Birmingham, is establishing itself as one of the places to go in Metro Detroit. Executive chef Francesco Apollonia’s small kitchen turns out authentic Italian fare for a capacity crowd almost every night. The 65 seats are so sought after that reservations are almost necessary.
The good news? At lunch, there are usually tables to be had, and sidewalk seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Apollonia, a native of Venice, is a purist. The menu reflects his heritage and doesn’t veer off into other directions. How refreshing to read a menu that doesn’t try to hit all the trendy buttons but concentrates on the kitchen’s strength.
The plates sent out to the tan linen-covered tables aren’t fussy, but harmoniously designed and with compatible touches to the main dish. One of his most popular dishes sets the tone: the Mediterranean fish, arata, teamed with fingerling potatoes and rapini, the slightly bitter green that is an Italian favorite. The fish is flown in from Greece, the chef says, and nearly 110 orders are served each week.
Pastas, of course, are prominent. Linguine with littleneck clams and white wine, the little twists of pasta called gemelli with tomato sauce and fresh ricotta cheese, and tagliatelle with the classic Bolognese meat sauce. A favorite of the chef and many of the guests, is the house gnocchi, tender potato dumplings baked with Bolognese sauce, from Appolonia’s mother’s recipe, quite unlike the usual version.
Appetizers include another house specialty, sliced octopus, which the chef prepares in thin slices topped by a mix of fennel and celery, a few grape tomatoes, lots of capers and olive oil and lemon. It is a much more delicate dish than the word octopus might indicate. Steamed mussels and calamari with garlic, crushed red pepper, wine and spinach are other stalwarts on the appetizer list.
There are several sturdy meat dishes on the dinner menu, including a notable pepper-crusted bone-in ribeye with roasted mushrooms, and a daintier filet mignon in a Chianti reduction.
Although it’s very difficult not to end with the chocolate and butterscotch bread pudding with vanilla bean gelato, on my recent visit I had the roasted Bosc pear.
The glamorous setting is the work of Royal Oak-based designer Jeff Fontana, with dusky murals that are based on details from dramatic paintings by the Baroque artists Caravaggio and Gentileschi. The soft lighting includes two beautiful antique chandeliers, one over a large round table that is set off by a transparent metal mesh curtain that helps define the space in what otherwise might be a boxy room.
167 Townsend, Birmingham
Call: (248) 494-7110
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Fri., dinner 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sun.-Mon.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $7-$14, salads $8-$9, sandwiches $9-$12, pastas $12-$16, entrees $14-$34 (the latter for filet mignon), desserts $7.50; dinner appetizers $9-$16, salads $8-$12 pastas $14-$24, entrees $19-$50, desserts $7.50
Credit cards: All major.
Liquor: Full bar and extensive wine list.
Noise level: Moderate to high.
Parking: Nearby structure or street
Wheelchair access: No barriers
What the ratings mean
★ — routine ★★ — good
★★1/2 — very good
★★★ — excellent
★★★★ — outstanding