Chef Guy Pelino adds contemporary flair to Detroit’s oldest restaurant

Food Focus

In metro Detroit, there may be no cuisine more misunderstood and misinterpreted than Italian. In truth, it's not a single cuisine, but a family of cuisines dotting the Italian peninsula and its islands. Here it is often overblown into "Italianese" creations, and not just at Olive Garden, but at any one of the meatball mills that churn out exceedingly heavy fare. And only Italian food is thought of in this way: Though most of us correctly associate Mediterranean cuisines from Beirut to Athens to Barcelona with fresh ingredients and deft preparation, we often tend to think of Italian as osso buco, spaghetti and meatballs, and double-ricotta lasagna, or any other meal that requires a two-day recuperation period.

The shame of it is that it doesn't have to be that way. Yes, those classic, rich, appealing dishes do belong on area menus, but our most thoughtful chefs try to offer something else. The best of them do more with less. They search out fresh ingredients and offer dishes that let them be the star of the show, just as they do in Italy. They treasure the nationality's peasant foods, and view heavy sauces with a hint of suspicion. And, when 90 percent of diners are going to order spaghetti or veal, they will quietly list a few risottos, vegetable dishes, or pan-seared fish for those who are paying attention.

One of those chefs is Guy Pelino, who's heading up the kitchen at Detroit's Roma Cafe. He's been given a delicate balancing act: to continue to delight the longtime customers who come for the classics, and to rejuvenate the menu with up-to-date choices. Six months into the task, it's still a work in progress.

Luckily, Pelino's the kind of guy with one foot in the past and one in the future. Like a lot of Italian chefs, he grew up watching Grandma in the kitchen. His family is from Abruzzo, in north central Italy, outside what you might call "The Mostaccioli Zone." It's a region with a strong culinary identity, rooted in tradition, drawing food tourists from across the globe. And yet Pelino is fashion-forward: a fan of the farm-to-table movement, fond of pop-up concepts, and vegan.

He seems the perfect candidate for the job of rejuvenating a classic, but he admits he must first do no harm. He tells us, "You have so many die-hard regular customers that expect the same thing every time they come in as far as the meat sauce, salad, the minestrone, and I won't touch any of those items. But I have lightened up other items, like the cannelloni and the eggplant lasagna, to where they're not quite as heavy."

He's wrought his best changes with the lunch specials, using the historic eatery's location in Eastern Market to its best effect — and more is on the way. When he got the job, he says, "They were doing almost a dozen specials and just repeating them all the time. Now we do about five specials a day, and most of them are lighter fare. That includes fresh fish every day. We're right here in the market, so I get fresh produce every day, fresh fish every single day. I mean, if I want salmon for today's special, I just call my fish guy, who's five blocks away, and I go down and grab it. That's one of the benefits of being here — and that's what we want to expand on.

"Coming into the summer season, we start getting the local merchants that come down to the market. Meeting with them and getting more farm-to-table by using those local ingredients, that's where I really want to get to this summer. I think that will be a lot more fun, getting back to the lighter things and focusing on fresh ingredients rather than these big, oversauced meals."

Diners can expect anything but run-of-the-mill specials, many showing off Pelino's fondness for ziti, risotto, and fish. He says his familiarity with vegetarian and vegan cooking means he has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to lightening up a sauce or a dish. Though he has worked with Italian and French chefs who never saw a problem butter couldn't solve, now he's "getting away form using the heavy creams and butter as much, and trying to use more of the olive oils and vegetable broths and wine reductions to bring out flavors." And there will always be a "catch of the day."

He says, "We're doing everything from wild-caught salmon to rainbow trout, just trying to change it up. Whatever my fish purveyor tells me he's got coming in fresh is what I'd like to use. With microgreen salads on top with caper berries and lemon, a little white wine, a little olive oil, so it's kind of light and fresh-tasting."

Of course, there are hard limits on what Pelino can do, given the age of the building and the size of the kitchen, which makes it tough to attempt some dishes. "That's why you stay away from them," he says, "because if I can't do it right, I'd rather not do it."

Tweaking the identity of a dining landmark like Roma Cafe won't happen overnight. At a fixture like Roma, even trading stodgy old glassware for sleeker, more modern decanters is a challenge. The 92-year-old former owner, Hector Socci, still prowls the restaurant almost daily. And yet, would you believe that Pelino and owner Janet Socci are actually talking about reinventing the restaurant as a cafe, with special events showcasing market-sourced dinners? They've even mentioned doing away with the formal tuxedos the servers wear.

Pelino says, "It originally was a café, and we'd rather get back to being what we are instead of trying to compete with, say, Coach Insignia or Joe Muer's. If we're going to be a café, let's get back to café style and do the best that we can with what we have. We're looking at doing some special menus, putting it out on Facebook, and limiting it to 20 to 30 people in one of the rooms, doing some stuff that's not on the menu whatsoever. Spring is here, so we want to bring in some morels and fiddle ferns and Michigan asparagus and do some ideas based on those items."

Farm-to-table menus in Eastern Market's oldest restaurant, smack in the midst of a back-to-the-farm food revolution?

Well, when in Rome ...

Michael Jackman is managing editor of the Detroit Metro Times.