341 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor has been undergoing something of a renaissance. For its many long-standing independent eateries, plenty of storefronts had been increasingly occupied by chains or places of middling quality. Then a few years ago, something happened: Real coffee shops started opening (again), and restaurants started serving decent cocktails alongside creative preparations of seasonal food.
One of the newer additions to the re-emerging scene is Mani Osteria & Bar, an Italian restaurant embracing the national trends toward comfortable dining and shareable plates.
Somewhat ironically situated across Division from a popular chain bar, Mani is adding energy and buzz to the area between State and Main streets. Previously a rent-to-own furniture store, the location seemed an unlikely place to open a new eatery, but the transformation certainly has been successful.
Inside, the bar and several high tables occupy the front area, and a few stairs lead to the main floor. An open kitchen overlooks everything, and the glow of wood-fired ovens set into the tiled cooking space is visible across the spacious, contemporary dining room.
Meeting the growing demand for better drinks even at casual establishments, Mani offers some creative cocktails. While the drinks are not executed with the perfect precision of some of southeast Michigan's new cocktail bars and restaurants — e.g., some cocktails one would expect to be stirred are shaken, and quantities are eyeballed — the libations are a fine way to start (or end) an evening. Most are thematically on point, featuring ingredients of Italian provenance: Carpano Antica vermouth, prosecco, Campari, and so on.
While our party usually embraces boozier drinks, it was the La Strada, a refreshing combination of prosecco, Aperol and rosemary, that drew the most praise for its perfect balance and straightforward drinkability.
When ordering, one will find a long, thoroughly appetizing list of small, shareable antipasti plates. Try as many as you can: A serving of about a half-dozen crisped artichokes ($9) have a nice, flaky texture and slightly salty flavor. The chicken liver mousse ($12) is topped with pistachios and has an impossibly smooth, consistent texture. And thank your higher power that pork belly has become fashionable, because Mani offers a superb preparation ($10), slow cooked to fork tenderness and then crisped nicely and served atop an apricot marmalade. These are all served in modest portions, but splitting a mix of plates among several people allows everyone to have a few bites.
Two favorite small plates offer a healthy dose of mouth puckering pleasantness. The charred octopus ($12), plated with arugula and bits of celery, is dressed with a hefty amount of lemon — perfect for both the seafood and the bitter greens. And the house-pickled tomatoes ($9) have great acidity. Painstakingly scored, blanched and skinned before pickling, the tiny, tart tomatoes explode on the palate both literally and figuratively. They're accompanied by a tapenade and whipped ricotta, so you can assemble some particularly piquant bruschetta.
They feature a nice selection of charcuterie and cheese, including some robust, flavorful slices of cured pork from famed Iowa producer, La Quercia, and the creamy La Tur, a blend of cow, sheep and goat milk famous for its buttery texture and moderately lactic tang.
Mani is perhaps best-known for its thin, 12-inch pizzas, cooked at high temperatures in those wood-fired ovens. They do a great job, producing arguably the best Old World-style pizzas in the region.
The toppings range from the minimalist Margherita ($12) to the Tartufo ($17), which has a surprisingly generous portion of black truffles alongside some flavorful Taleggio cheese and an egg which patrons are encouraged to break on their own to spread about the runny yolk. For what it's worth, each is amusingly served atop an overturned, oversized tomato can.
Value seekers might consider a pie as a standalone meal, since the small dishes can add up quickly. A friend sometimes jokes that these types of restaurants offer half the food at three-quarters the price. There's a grain of truth to that, even at Mani, but given the numerous choices, everyone can find something of high quality that fits their tastes and budgets.
Besides, eating only pizza would mean skipping the pasta, made in-house. The tagliatelle ($15) has just the right amount of egg and a nice earthy flavor from mushrooms. The gnocchi ($14) had a very fresh flavor from tomatoes, herbs and cheese, though the texture verged on gumminess. Our party's favorite was the garganelli ($18), perfectly cooked tubular pasta with mushrooms and brussels sprouts.
Desserts are what one might expect: a trio of miniaturized cannoli, an assortment of gelato, and an affogato. All three are perfectly tasty, though none beg for attention.
The beer list doesn't strive to be anything special, and though the wine list (thankfully) focuses on Old World selections, its most redeeming quality is that it's price-appropriate and accessible. Retro-styled Faygo bottles make an appearance on the drinks menu as well as a nice strawberry-mint lemonade.
Given its overwhelming popularity and the sheer number of successful businesses downtown, it might seem like a stretch to say that Ann Arbor ever had a down period. But successful is not the same as good, and it's places like Mani Osteria that will hopefully carry the city into its future.
Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. 11 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday.
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