Driving to Alinosi’s — Detroit’s oldest confectioner, circa 1921 — is not easy. I sputter back and forth past the East McNichols shop for 15 minutes without seeing it, distracted by yards with pretty flowers surrounded by barbed wire fences. I stop a teenage boy on a bike in front of a party store.
“Know where Alinosi’s is?”
“You know, the ice cream and chocolate maker.”
He stares at me blankly. I want to ask, “Don’t you watch the Food Network? Don’t you read Savoir, Midwest Living? Alinosi’s is famous!”
I think better of it.
I get the same responses from some fellas at a barbershop.
Finally, across from a burned-out arcade adorned with chipped images of Pac Man, I see the sign, “Alinosi’s Spumoni Ice Cream” — faded, a memory, shaded by a 10-foot weed.
The place looks closed from the street. But every week, up to 200 pounds of old-fashioned spumoni — an Italian delicacy of layered rum, pistachio and chocolate ice cream — is shipped from here to restaurants and connoisseurs across the country. Customers from Manhattan, N.Y., to Camarillo, Calif., pay as much as $200 to deliver a $24 gallon tub of Alinosi’s spumoni to their doors overnight. The Detroit institution is one of the nation’s only spumoni makers that still does it the old-fashioned way, with 15 percent butterfat.
There’s a bustling candy business too.
I pull behind the hidden sweets factory, park on top of purple wildflowers and listen to crickets in the empty lot next door.
Dave Tessman, confectionery design and production manager, meets me at my car. Tessman’s been working here since 1979, when he was a 15-year-old soda jerk. These days, he arrives at the store in the pitch dark of 5 a.m. to cool chocolate churning in 200-pound vats.
He knows the neighborhood well. Tessman picks up trash and mows the lots; he admires the lady who sweeps and shovels the trash that regenerates up and down the street.
Tessman lights a smoke and explains that though it’s a bit rough round here — the precinct has one of the city’s highest crime rates — it’s gotten a lot better. City employees are mowing grass and weeding for the first time in memory, he says. Neighbors are forming block watches.
But he’s aggravated: Alinosi’s has been trying to buy the adjacent lot for two years. The owner hasn’t paid taxes on it since 1997, but the city hasn’t foreclosed, and Tessman has had no luck cutting a deal.
We enter through the back door. Old metal machines twist cream and chocolate. The air is sugar-coated with the delicious, pronounced odor of chocolate.
Vicky Moore is pressing a fork into one chocolate at a time as they roll down a little conveyor belt. The Harper Woods resident used to own what is now Alinosi’s Grosse Pointe Woods retail store.
“Everything they do here is quality,” she says.
She admits she nibbles off the line once in a while. “We call it quality testing,” she adds with a giggle and a wink.
Six employees operate the chocolate, truffle and ice cream production, from start to finish. Everything — truffles, solid chocolate bunnies and Corvettes, spumoni — is made from scratch.
“We cover every nut you can think of,” with chocolate, says Tessman, who notes the crunchy legumes come exclusively from Rocky Peanut Co. in Eastern Market.
The sprawling office is cluttered with hot-stamp machines for labels, gold and black velvet boxes, shiny ribbons, glue, and stacks and stacks of candies.
“Most of our business is corporate crap,” says Tessman, a diligent, meticulous worker, by all accounts, yet sassy to the core.
“We make all our own centers, jellies and creams,” he says, noting that until recently Alinosi’s outsourced some of those things.
Steve DiMaggio owns Alinosi’s. His grandparents founded the place, and he’s worked at the factory since he was 6 years old. He’s been friends with Tessman for 25 years.
DiMaggio’s grandparents lived down the street. Now, crack dealers live in the house, says DiMaggio.
“My grandfather put that attachment on it too,” he says. “Well, I guess it’s used for crack storage now.”
Tessman and DiMaggio lead me toward the back, into a big room furnished as a classic soda fountain. I gasp. It’s stunning. The room’s crystal chandeliers and silver- and gold-mirrored walls recall the energy that once bustled within; men in hats, girls in frilly dresses, an era lost. The room is a museum. There’s a big stainless-steel counter, lined with silver and aquamarine stools. All sparkles, clean, like new.
Tessman notes that the old cash register only goes up to $3. “If something was $11, we’d have to ring in $3 three times, and then $2,” he says.
Changes at Alinosi’s make Tessman sad, he says. The fountain used to bustle with customers.
“We stayed open until 11 o’clock on the weekends, and there’d be a line down the street,” he says.
“We relied on the neighborhood for our fountain business,” DiMaggio says.
In the 1980s, McNichols was cut off between Van Dyke and Outer Drive, to make more room for City Airport. It choked the neighborhood, says Tessman. Property values plummeted and many residents left, leaving the area a haven for criminals and delinquents.
Despite vandalism and constant break-ins, DiMaggio’s family persevered.
Everything changed in 1991. It was Easter and the shop was filled with its best-ever window displays and 3-foot-high chocolate bunnies.
Overnight, the place was ransacked.
“They didn’t even steal anything,” says DiMaggio, his face incredulous. “They smashed the bunnies against the wall. They tore up the place. That was it.”
DiMaggio put cinder blocks where shiny windows once fronted McNichols. Now, the blocks keep out the crooks, and the light. Nothing bad has happened since 1991, he says, noting that the neighborhood is really taking a turn for the better.
One day, DiMaggio hopes to reopen the soda fountain. The wholesale business is going great, but the fountain obviously holds DiMaggio’s heart.
“We’ll stick it out with the city,” says DiMaggio. “We’ve been here for three generations. When I walk in, I still see my grandfather behind the counter. It’s kind of hard to turn out the lights and walk out the door for the last time.”
You can find Alinosi’s products at Pure Detroit stores, and at Sara’s Sweets at 20737 Mack, Grosse Pointe Woods. The spumoni, ice cream and Italian ices can be found at Roma Cafe in Detroit and Italian markets in the metro area, including Alcamo’s Market in Dearborn.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]