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Italian chef opens Cucina Lab Torino, an intimate kitchen in Troy with no set menu

Chef Elisabetta Balzola and her family moved to Metro Detroit from Turin, Italy in 2014

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Italian chef and caterer Elisabetta Balzola has a few cooking philosophies that she's excited to bring to her new Troy restaurant, Cucina Lab Torino. 

Named after her hometown, Balzola will open the small eatery Thursday. She says there will be no set menu. Instead, she'll use the freshest ingredients possible and serve multi-course, easy-to-digest meals from her open kitchen plan. 

Cucina Lab Torino has an open kitchen plan where guests can watch chef Balzola cook.

"This is not a restaurant," she said, comparing it more to a residence than a dining establishment. "This is a corner of Italy here in the middle of Michigan with all the flavor, all the color of Italy." 

With COVID-safe social distancing, Cucina Lab Torino will seat only 20 people at a time for now, with a few chairs around a counter facing the open kitchen. Reservations are required for dinner. Balzola will keep some daytime hours as she preps for dinner to take catering orders and offer lunch carryout. She's also set aside hours for cooking classes during the week. 

She'll take carryout orders for dinner, too, but customers will have to call or visit the website to find out what she's making that day. 

Chef Elisabetta Balzola's garganelli pasta with crawfish and clams.

Balzola can be flexible with dietary needs and take direction based on what customers would like to eat that day, but she says she won't cook anything that she can't get fresh and she doesn't want to overload people with huge portions that call for a doggy bag. The thought of a guest microwaving her food the next day doesn't sit well with the first-generation Italian chef. 

"When you go to a restaurant (in America) they give you a huge dish and people leave half of that on their plate," she said. "For me, that’s totally weird. Because in Italy if you don’t eat all of it that means the food was no good."

Aside from fresh, organic produce and meats from local markets, she tries to use as many Italian ingredients as she can, although the pandemic has made importing some items difficult. 

"This is my concept. I try to show you guys what real pasta tastes like," she said. "Because I’m first generation I know exactly how the prosciutto has to be, how the pasta has to taste, because it’s not (recipes from) my grandpa or grandma, it’s me, we just moved."

Appetizer from chef Elisabetta Balzola, who is opening Cucina Lab Torino, an Italian restaurant in Troy, this week.

Balzola and her husband have lived in the states before, decades ago. They made their most recent move from Turin to Metro Detroit in 2014 with their three children when her husband had a work-related opportunity. Soon after the move, she started a catering company that became the seed for Cucina Lab Torino, which translates roughly to kitchen laboratory. 

"My menu will be antipasto, the main dish of meat, the side and then dessert," she said. "You’re going to have a variety of dishes, but not huge. Four-five dishes, but the right amount so when you leave you say OK, I’m fine. You don’t need to take a pill to digest."

Balzola said she grew up cooking and has taken cooking classes throughout Europe. Some of her recipes were her mother's and grandmother's, and some date back to the early 1900s. The fact that her father was a gastroenterologist was also an influence on her cooking. She said discussing which foods were good and bad for the body was a normal part of her childhood. 

Expect a lot of maternal energy in the restaurant, too. Balzola is proud that she's happened to staff Cucina Lab with her peers, American and Italian women, many of whom are mothers like Balzola, whose children are 16, 18 and 20. 

A man adjusts a light above Cucina Lab Torino, a new Italian restaurant opening this week in Troy.

Cucina Lab Torino is opening Thursday at 3960 Crooks in Troy. Call (248) 525-9098 or visit cucina-lab.com to make a reservation for Thurs.-Sat evenings. There's no liquor license for now, but one is expected to come through by early November. 

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens