Review: Italian-American restaurant San Morello a downtown Detroit hit

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Just as chef and owner Andrew Carmellini intended, San Morello in the Shinola Hotel is a neighborhood Italian restaurant. Only the neighborhood is the buzzy, busy, scooter-infested community that is downtown Detroit. 

While it's on the ground floor of the Shinola, San Morello has an identity beyond "hotel restaurant." With an entrance right on Woodward through a popular sidewalk patio where diners can sip a crushed-ice cocktail the colors of the Italian flag and watch peddle pubs cruise past, it's easy to forget that the luxury brand has anything to do with this sophisticated pizza and pasta restaurant.  

Sure, San Morello is elegant, but it's more comfort than fancy. It's a well-executed balance, really, and collective expertise of Carmellini and his team at NoHo Hospitality Group is evident. They have several restaurants throughout New York City and Baltimore — both in hotels and on their own — including Locanda Verde inside Robert DeNiro's TriBeCa Hotel. 

People enjoy the patio area at the San Morello restaurant along Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Both the neutral-toned decor and the menu at this urban spot are modern, yet welcoming. House-made pasta, wood-fired pizza and warm, seed-crusted bread is served to folks on plush brown furniture in dining rooms accented by stripes and homey-looking tiled walls. 

San Morello is busy. Even lunch can be lively, and on weekday nights the dining room fills up fast with people who just got off work, couples hoping for a romantic date, diners who are staying at the hotel, and suburbanites having dinner before a game or show in the city. Because of this the dress code is wide-reaching. I've seen business suits and cocktail attire, but it's also not out of place to see someone in shorts and a T-shirt eating pasta with one hand and working on a laptop with the other.

They've had success with staffing, too, which can be a challenge not just in Detroit but in New York. Carmellini says the team of employees who moved to town with them from New York is still in place (including chef de cuisine Cory Barberio and the hotel's chef Don Hammond, who is a Michigan native) and they've hired local staff members on top of that, many whom I recognize from other fine-ish dining establishments. 

"What I've learned in doing this my whole life is there really is no recipe for success, there really isn't," said Carmellini, a Cleveland native, who along with his NoHo partners Luke Ostrom and Huntington Woods native Josh Pickard, visit San Morello regularly.

"We put together a great team, we do training, we obsess about it for years, but there's a lot of non-tangible factors that come together and Detroit's really come together in a nice way. I'm really proud of my team there."

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The volume of house-made pasta that they’re churning out at San Morello is on par with that of Locanda Verde, he said. San Morello has two full-time people crimping ravioli and cutting noodles. 

Chef della Cucina Cory Barberio shows off an "OG" pie, hot out of the wood-fired oven. The pizza is topped with pepperoni, 'nduja, and Fresno chilies.

The mozzarella for the wood-fired OG pizza is made in-house, too. This pie is small enough to take down on your own as a entree, or could be split between two or more diners as a starter. It is topped with huge, thinly-sliced pepperoni that glisten with oil and almost completely cover all this bright, gooey house-made cheese. Underneath, the basil-charged sauce has thin bits of red fresco chilies that give the pie a kick that is surprising for a pizza but still mild and manageable overall. 

With  all the plates I've tried here, every taste has made me stop and appreciate the quality of the ingredients. Maybe it's partly psychology; I know the menu was written by an award-winning chef from the big city. Also, like luxury goods, you tend to want to enjoy things that aren't cheap. 

Or maybe it's that seasonal, quality ingredients taste better. 

I want to tell you about the burrata dish, a globe of delicate, creamy cow's milk cheese that San Morello has made even better with swirls of peppery arugula pesto, fava beans, some olives and dark opal basil. But I won't go into too much detail since Carmellini says this won't stay on the menu very much longer. I'll console myself with the fact that the cheese wasn't made in-house anyway. (Burrata often isn't.) 

Had it stayed on the menu, I'd just keep ordering it and deprive myself from trying new things, like the asparagus al forno — dressed with smoked pancetta, egg and pignoli — or Carmellini's lamb meatballs coated in sauce and cheese and served in a little cast-iron pan. 

When you find your favorite dish at San Morello, cherish it because it may be gone on your next visit. Earlier this year, I heard people raving about a $28 white pizza with fontina cheese bubbling under a layer of earthy black truffles sliced like pepperoni. That's been replaced by the wood-fired king crab, a pie with crab, vodka sauce, lemon and chili. 

The pasta section of the menu offers a dish called simply "My Grandmother's Ravioli" at San Morello in Detroit.

One thing that's not in jeopardy of getting rotated off the menu is Grandma's ravioli. This satisfying, classic dish is something Carmellini says he's been making in kitchens for years. It's an amalgam of a traditional Italian-American style of ravioli and the recipe of his Italian grandmother, who was from the region of Friuli in Northern Italy that borders Slovenia. The dish is a modest portion of buttery, square, meat-filled ravioli (a mix of beef, pork and veal) served on a bed of red sauce and accented with roughly torn basil sprigs. 

Another study pasta dish that is portioned to fill you up but not saddle you with a carryout container is the mezze rigatoni, which at the moment is on the lunch and dinner menus. It's a white veal bolognese sauce that douses bouncy and firm tube-shaped noodles, Piave vecchio cheese and pink peppercorns that introduce themselves on the first bite. 

The bar menu big enough to offer something for everyone (no cheap beers, though) at the same time isn't overwhelming with options. My eye kept going to the tricolore spritz, a refreshing gin-based drink with bitters, lime, cucumber and mint. 

San Morello has some fun on the dessert menu with cream-filled doughnuts, a triple strawberry sundae and Sicilian pistachio cake. On one particularly busy evening, I saw servers delivering desserts with a bombastic, flaming sparkler shooting from it to tables celebrating a special occasion. 

All the menus get tweaked often, a good sign that San Morello is dedicated to seasonality and freshness. Carmellini is planning some corn-based dishes for the next menu revision, including a farfalle pasta dish with corn and bacon. 

(Left to right) Jamila Thompson, of Detroit, shares a laughter-filled lunch with Troy Larson, of Birmingham, as server Tahirah Muhammad gets in on the fun.

Keeping things fresh for diners is part of the success, along with a well-trained, engaged staff and a versatile dining experience. 

"With restaurants that we have in hotels, I try to find the balance ... if you're going out for a night out and you've heard about the hotel and you know the brand and you expect a certain design level, but you also want to stop by for a bite to eat at the bar for a glass of wine and a bowl of spaghetti. So I try to hit both those things."

Judging by how well the downtown neighborhood has embraced San Morello, I'd say he hit his marks. 

San Morello

1400 Woodward, Detroit

(313) 209-4700 or

Rating: ★★★ (excellent)

Hours: The restaurant closes between meal services. 7 a.m.-11 a.m., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed.; 7 a.m.-11 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Thurs.-Fri.; 7 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Sat. and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sun. 

Prices: Breakfast entrees, $12-$16; brunch entrees, $15-$21; lunch entrees, $16-$26; dinner starters, $6-$18; entrees, $19-$62; dishes for the table, $48-$155; dessert, $6-$15. Cocktails, $10-$14; beer, $6-$9; wines by the glass, $11-$25. Prices subject to change. 

Reservations: Suggested for dinner. Make them through the website or call. 

Noise level: It varies depending on where you sit and how busy it is. The bar area during peak hours is the loudest. 

Accessibility: No barriers

Parking: Shinola valet parking on off of Grand River. The Z Garage is a block east. 

What the stars mean

★ — routine ★★ — very good ★★★ — excellent ★★★★ — extraordinary

Twitter: @melodybaetens