Two family-run restaurants set table for good food done well

Daniel Howes

Dearborn –

Behind City Hall, in an older red-brick commercial strip on the west side of Schaefer, stands arguably the best one-two foodie punch in Metro Detroit.

They’re family-run. They’re unpretentious, friendly and sincere. They’re evidence that high-quality meat and fish can be found in more places than trendy markets in high-income enclaves or the inventories of the genre turned political statement by, say, Whole Foods and its ilk.

It’s hard to beat Phil Calandra’s The Fish Market, ground zero for killer swordfish, halibut (in season), fresh whole squid (when he can get it) and whole fish from the Mediterranean most can find only on upscale menus. Or Alcamo’s, a storied Italian market whose row of pasta and polenta, case of house-made sausage and prime beef, are as affordable as they are transcendent.

We’ve been customers of both for the better part of the past decade, reveling with so many others in the cozy familiarity of these side-by-side Dearborn institutions standing the test of time. Their proprietors, and the next generation who likely will be, know (and love) their goods in ways the folks at your local Kroger never could or would.

And if you love their stuff too, well, that’s the beginning of a beautiful thing.

These family-owned businesses still work because they know their market and price their goods accordingly, namely affordably. Drive 15 miles or so north into Birmingham or Bloomfield, or west to Ann Arbor, and the prices soar — often on meat, fish or San Marzano tomatoes obtained from some of the same suppliers.

Case in point: A few years back, I remember asking John Chimento, the patriarch of Alcamo’s, why he didn’t charge more for his prime porterhouse. His answer, as I recall, went something like “because I don’t want to gouge people.”

That and the simple fact that John and Phil next door are smart enough businessmen to know that the fastest way to close the doors on their family endeavors is to charge posh Oakland County prices in a place that is neither posh nor in Oakland County.

“It’s whatever the traffic will bear,” Phil Calandra told me in a rollicking interview Monday. “My swordfish, in Ann Arbor, is about $30 to $35 a pound. We don’t pick up fish three times a week. We get fish every day.”

This guy loves what he does — 31 years selling fish from behind L-shaped cases filled with ice. This time of year, it starts to the right with mussels and soft-shell crabs. Then the whiting and kingfish, followed by the whole red mullet prized in France, the branzino and orata elevated by the Italians, the porgies popular in New England.

Turn the corner and things go orange: Copper River salmon, Atlantic salmon and Scottish sea trout, a well-marbled fish transformed by a quick high-heat roast. Fire it atop thinly sliced potato seasoned with s&p, a little fresh thyme and sautéed wild mushrooms finished with lemon juice (a Jamie Oliver riff).

And on it goes, past the dry sea scallops, three sizes of shrimp and into the filleted fish Phil fries like a mad-man on most Fridays. He figures he cooks 40 pounds of cod on a single day, and nearly as much lake perch for the hordes who return repeatedly for their half-pound of fish, fries and sides.

Mind you: The guy is 80, and he routinely works 13-hour days, still. Joined the Marines in 1950 at age 16; owned and ran an Italian restaurant outside Chicago; sold oils and cooking fats; spent the first 20 or so years in the fish retailing business rising before 3 a.m. to select his own fish from distributors, drive his own high-lo and deposit the catch in his own truck.

It’s a labor of love that his third son, christened Santino but known to everyone as Sonny, intends to continue “because I want to keep it in the family, number one, and because I like meeting interesting people.”

The makings for good food, done well, have ways of doing just that. Another case in point: Wanna blow away the foodies in your world this Labor Day weekend?

Call Alcamo’s on a Thursday. Ask for Emily (or Pina) and place an order for one of their signature porterhouses. Two inches thick, yes, enough to feed at least four people. Season it with kosher salt, add a slick of olive oil, lots of freshly ground pepper and some chopped rosemary.

Grill it right (too little is better than too much), let it rest, separate the strip and the tenderloin from the bone, slice the chunks on the bias. Reassemble the pieces along the bone, finish with a tiny dusting of salt.

The result: your own Bistecca Fiorentina, a Tuscan standard. Don’t do meat? Slide next door; either way, you’ll get great grub from a real family-run market that treats its customers the old-fashioned way without breaking the bank.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.