This not-so little Italian eatery, La Rondinella, tucked into the corner of Fisher Freeway and Russell in Eastern Market was a breath of fresh air. Lady K and I were seated on a weekday evening. The sunlight had a faint glow that reflected off of the metallic tables and zinc bar. Looking around, we thought to ourselves that besides the need for more textiles and to clean their large windows, their simple approach to design was close to perfect. The ambiance was sophisticated, yet low-key. It felt European, rightfully so since it is an Italian joint, however still had an American accommodation. The staff had warm smiles for us, were cordial and dressed in soft yet proper attire. We could really tell the attention to detail – crystal clear glassware, chilled plates, crushed ice in the water, linen napkins, aerodynamic seating – all noticed and very appreciated.
K ordered their Olivada Crostini and Grissini di Nigella along with some dry red wine to get us started. For someone who loves fresh castelvetrano olives (the big bright green ones) the crostini is definitely a must. K mentioned the vibrancy of the extra virgin olive oil, which had that slight peppery bite with citrusy bitter tones that you get when you know the oil is really good. Keep in mind that if you show up for happy hour the crostini you order at the bar is not the same crostini you will get dining-in. The grissini (thin breadsticks) were all over a foot long. They were fun and are a great in-between snack when you have to wait for the next dish. The nigella aspect of the grissini, aka black seed, has a very strong and signature flavor.
Our salad, the Mista, was reminiscent of a caesar but lighter and with a little more zest. They use a lot of parmigiano reggiano in their offerings. This salad had both the parmigiano and a dressing using a labne base – of which I am a big fan. K thought it was a pleasant transition salad but wasn’t blown away – I loved it. Then came out the Bietola (swiss chard) and the Fagioli(lima beans). I think it is important to ask for a side of bread with the Fagioli – as it is very saucy. The lima beans were a nostalgic reminder of some of K’s childhood family dinners – warm bean soup, rich with a nice texture. Both of these were vegan. The Bietola was served hot and was incredibly zesty and refreshing. And if you want to follow up with a non-dairy option – I highly recommend the Funghi Mista with added polenta, of which even the Detroit Free Press raved about.
After the Funghi Mista, came along our second favorite dish – the Gratinato di Finocchio (fennel with cheese). Wow! These types of dishes are the best. Not too heavy, rich with a mild bite to it and full of flavor. I thought the crunch of the olive pangrattato with the doused fennel in besciamella cream was a bite of perfection – especially when washed down with a swirl of red wine. K loved the mild spiciness of the thinly sliced red peppers that, along with more parmigiano, topped this piccolo antipasto.
And finally the crown jewel – the ricotta Gnocchi, one of their most simple yet exquisite entrées. In my opinion they are everything gnocchi should be. These bite sized pillows were smothered in two of the most important ingredients – pesto and plenty of extra virgin, again the best kind of extra virgin. They are done perfectly and the pesto is a green collar kale – giving it a more earthy and zesty bite than sweet basil. I thought the pesto was something closer to a carrot top version. They also sneak in some primo sale (sheep milk cheese) which was soft and added just the right amount of salt to the dish. K had a particularly critical view of some other gnocchi in town, especially a version she had a week prior at a gastropub that had been fried, but for her this traditional ricotta dumpling with some modern ingenuity has literally defined why gnocchi exists.
To wrap it all up we ordered dessert. K wanted the Torta di Mandorla, because it had rhubarb and nuts but I talked her into the Pistachio Semifreddo. I thought the presentation, served on a small chilled plate with three peeled orange wedges, was a nice break from the standard ramekin you’d get at most other restaurants. And the portion is all you really need – definitely enough for two. To K’s delight the Semifreddo had a very generous amount of pistachios and after eating it we felt both light and almost reenergized from the calming effects of the wine.
Since our first visit we have been back twice. Dave Mancini’s creation, La Rondinella, has been consistent and charming and is an absolute must if you are in search for good Italian food in Detroit.
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