A bit of Italy

Mediterranean flavor at Joe Bologna in Sterling Heights

You might expect a restaurant calling itself Joe Bologna to have something to do with a national chain's attempt to make their store sound Italian. But that is not the case with the cozy trattoria in a strip mall on 17 Mile Road east of Dequindre, which is owned by the eponymous Joe Bologna. (He is not related to Joseph Bologna the actor.)

Joe and his wife Adele, who opened their place in 1985, had previously worked in her father's restaurants. Continuing the tradition, son Danny operates a spin-off, Via Bologna, in Clarkston. And in a profession not known for stability, chef Brian Romanko has been in their Sterling Heights kitchen for 15 years.

Joe's grandparents came from Umbria and Sicily — the grainy Old World family pictures that fill the walls are as authentic as the Bologna name. They share space with Tuscan art, artifacts and kitsch that decorate the main dining room, which seats about 60 in tables and elevated booths. The butcher-block paper that covers white cloths is enhanced by the multicolored pastel tableware and napkins. The quaint tin ceiling, which lends an air of faux authenticity, was added to the new building in the 1980s.

Reflecting more of his Sicilian grandparents than those from Perugia, Joe Bologna's cuisine scores well on the cost-benefit scale, with none of their substantial main courses costing more than $16, while the appetizers average around $8. Even better, the reasonably priced wine list is buttressed by periodic specials that feature a handful of intriguing varietals from boutique vineyards at $20. Thursdays are devoted specifically to wine bargains.

Among the appetizers, as in many restaurants these days, calamari is the most popular and Romanko's lightly breaded and tender, if a tad soggy, version does not disappoint. It pays to accept the small surcharge to add banana peppers to the sauce, which should be ordered on the side if possible. The most unusual of the starters is Ambrose (Joe's father-in-law) spingioni, a fluffy sort of focaccia-pizza from Sicily with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Traditional sausage and peppers in a lively tomato sauce is another winner. Meatballs, caprese, antipasto and baked eggplant with ricotta and mozzarella are among the other firsts.

It is a bit surprising to see a Traverse City cherry chicken salad as well as a Traverse City cherry chicken entrée on the quite traditional Italian menu, but these platters offer a sample of the fare from the Wildwood, an up-north-themed tavern that the Bolognas are opening in Macomb Township.

Dinners come with a choice of a somewhat bland minestrone full of rough-cut vegetables, an especially rich mushroom soup or a crisp garden salad with a tangy tomato-vinaigrette dressing. Beyond the usual suspects among the hefty pastas is Joe Bologna's casalinga, a catch-all word translated roughly as "homemade," which successfully brings together meatballs, slices of Italian sausage, and mozzarella baked with penne in a zesty bolognese sauce. The trattoria's satisfactory take on spaghetti and clam sauce flaunts the welcome (for some) addition of anchovies.

The side of penne that accompanies the non-pasta entrées is more than perfunctory. This part of the menu is familiar, with a handful of chicken and veal preparations (Marsala, piccata, Parmesan) and salmon and whitefish. Shrimp and beef — although there is a burger menu — are among the absentees from the regular bill of fare.

The chicken piccata — chicken breasts and artichokes in a piquant lemon sauce — is notable for the relative tenderness of the chicken, always the trickiest part of working with sautéed breasts. On the other hand, the veal Marsala was a mixed bag on one occasion, with a subtle wine sauce washing over slightly chewy pieces of meat. But considering the fact that it costs only $15, the entrée was a respectable effort.

Pizza is available in a variety of formats, including often-inventive thin-crusted individual pies, such as Red's with red clam sauce, red pepper and red onion. The regular round 'zas are notable for their crunchy, well-charred crust edges. Those in search of a lighter meal might opt for the Sicilian-by-way-of-New Orleans muffuletta sandwiches with names like Jimmy Bam Bam (grilled portabello, fried eggplant, mozzarella and roasted red peppers) that might arouse the ire of the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, even though Joe Colombo was one of its founders.

One or the other of the Bolognas is usually present to make the rounds among the patrons, and they are ably assisted by such skillful servers as Julie, dressed in semi-formal black uniforms.

The fact that Joe Bologna's has survived in the competitive Italian family-restaurant business for 25 years is a tribute to its solid kitchen, which continues to turn out red-sauced classics at extremely affordable prices.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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