All in the family

The Larco family has been serving Italian food to Detroiters since 1950, when Larco’s Inn opened on McNichols just west of Livernois, a stone’s throw from my house. After his father’s death, Mark Larco moved the business to the suburbs and opened Larco’s Italian Chophouse in Troy in 1990 and Larco’s Italian Grill in West Bloomfield two years ago. Many of the dishes from the original Larco’s Inn are still on the menu, including all the Italian classics made from the family’s recipes. You can see this for yourself, as one of the old menus is on display at the Chophouse. (Check out those prices — 35 cents for spumoni, up to $7 for the highest-priced entrée, filet mignon.)

There are many nice touches at both restaurants, such as a small antipasto plate — on the house — served with a basket of perfect Italian bread, nice and crusty. Soup or salad comes with all entrées. The salad is ordinary, but the soups are really special, and they come in a big bowl, not a cup. Do try the minestrone; it is made with freshly cut vegetables, beans and barley in a tomato broth. One evening the soup du jour was a spicy clam chowder, not Italian, but super all the same.

If you’re getting to know my co-diner, you know he ordered whatever dish had the most seafood, and this was frutti de mare, a luscious combination of mussels, scallops, calamari, shrimp and chopped clams with angel hair pasta in a robust marinara.

"Veal fantasy" includes small portions of classic Italian preparations for veal: colombo, marsala, picatta, and Siciliano; you will be happy with any one of them. My favorite was the picatta, with its piquant lemon sauce and briny capers with artichoke hearts.

To keep life interesting, there is an often-changing section of the menu that strays from the traditional Old World recipes. Called "Innovations," it was initiated by executive chef Peter Larco, son of the owner, grandson of the founder, and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

At the Grill, we tried two Innovations. The co-diner was happy with his seafood pasta, this time a lightly-sauced linguini with lovely sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and a generous number of grilled, unpeeled shrimp.

The disappointment was grilled eggplant and portobello parmagiana; the tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella were tasty, but the eggplant was not cooked through and tasted acerbic. (Our server that night was also acerbic. He paused at our table between courses to say, "The chef just quit and walked out." It was a tired joke, and we hadn’t noticed the overlong wait until he pointed it out. On the other hand, service at the Troy Chophouse was gracious and welcoming.)

Both restaurants are similar: lots of dark wood, art on the walls, no plastic grapevines or other Italian kitsch. Both include full bars and lots of steaks, including a 28-ounce Porterhouse. The menu at the Grill includes sandwiches and burgers and has a more informal atmosphere.

Look no further than the spumoni when considering dessert, and note that the classic three tiers of rum, pistachio, and chocolate ice cream with nuts and candied fruit isn’t on the dessert tray. One of our servers did not even mention that it was available. The wait staff will inform you that the old world delicacy is made in-house, but Mark Larco reveals that it is his sister, Marie Palazzolo, who makes it at her ice cream company in Saugatuck. At the Grill, I was offered a free dessert to compensate for the eggplant, and I strayed, unfortunately, from spumoni. The cobbler was OK, while the spumoni is a standout.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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