Flavor & fun

Paul Jackman began working at D'Amato's about 10 years ago. Four years later he became general manager. When the chance came to become owner, he and his wife, Lisa, seized the opportunity, and they've been rolling since April. The Jackmans offer neighborhood Italian fare that's eclectic and always made from scratch, using local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. But the couple's philosophy goes beyond just great food: They want you to have fun.

What's more, they've been busy sprucing up the place. It's comfortably lit, with fanciful copper tube light fixtures, rich red draperies and painted black columns that all combine to provide solid and cozy surroundings. Here, the seasoned waitstaff casually illustrates "attention to detail," while, in the kitchen, Myles McVay crafts superior dishes. His pedigree includes classy area joints like Opus One and Shiraz.

If you're looking for the fun, you'll want to spend an early Sunday afternoon brunch sipping on a bottomless Bellini or Mimosa cocktail while moving to the Django Reinhardt- and Louis Armstrong-influenced Gypsy Strings of Detroit, whose big, early jazz sounds appeal to adults and children alike and clearly aid digestion.

Think you'll be more than just thirsty? Try the eggs Benedict with a side of fruit. Two poached eggs sit atop spicy thick sausage patties on crispy biscuits. It's all topped with a roasted red pepper hollandaise and tastes lovely. Your sweet tooth will adore almond marscapone between two fluffy slices of French toast, covered with a cranberry and apple reduction. It's a seasonal creation too rich for description without naughty words. Crêpes, specialty omelets and an archetypical breakfast dish pack the brunch menu. The crêpes didn't quite have the elasticity we look for. And though we didn't get a chance to sample the shoestring hash browns, they looked fantastic on a plate.

Arrive early enough Sunday and you might see Gypsy Strings frontman Gino Fanelli materialize out of the 1930s on a red motorbike, his guitar riding shotgun in the sidecar. He also plays the dining room solo on Friday and Saturday evenings. Between D'Amato's and Goodnight Gracie, there's something musical going on just about every night of the week.

That's right, the legendary Royal Oak martini bar, Goodnight Gracie, where alchemist Rob Ripullo turns bottles of liquor into mirth, is connected to D'Amato's. Rob's been behind the bar at Gracie's for years and knows how to mix a cocktail and take care of his customers. If you're in the frame of mind for happy hour drink-and-appetizer specials, have a seat at one of the two bars in the building and dig some small plates of shaved raw beef carpaccio, lamb chops or artisanal cheese. You won't be alone.

A fresh Caesar or Caprese salad will run you $6. At $9, you can pleasure in a salad of arugula, chèvre, roasted beets, pistachios and lemon vinaigrette. If you crave something with a little more crust, there's always pizza — and $8 will get you one topped with feta, grape tomatoes, roasted banana peppers, kalamata olives, arugula, lemon oil and black pepper.

Wash it down with wine. There are 30 selections by the glass and another 60 offered by the bottle, with ample choice in the $30-$40 range. The geography naturally leans Italian and West Coast, but there are enough French, Australian and South American wines to please just about any palate. With a nose of cranberries and cocoa powder and subtle notes of anis, a 2003 Vietti Barbera D'Asti paired decently with entrées of veal and gnocchi.

The tender, fluffy pillows of gnocchi, composed of ricotta and spinach, were surrounded by a rich sauce and adorned with pancetta, peas and bright little tomato berries. The veal saltimbocca came on soft layers of rapini and gnocchi, resting in a silky Marsala sauce generously showered with bits of fried prosciutto. Both dishes were sublimely balanced. There are many more beef, chicken and seafood entrées of the same caliber, including a fascinating parsnip "brickroll" with sweet potato purée, apple cranberry compote and a Michigan cherry-brandy-cream sauce. A dessert special of espresso crème brûlée was a bit dull, but a cup of fresh-brewed espresso sweetened with a stick of crystallized sugar finished the meal agreeably.

The Jackmans and their team are working hard to keep regulars comfortable and interested while attracting new customers. In addition to the new Sunday brunch, the couple is planning more events, such as a classic cocktail night and wine-tasting dinners. If they can keep up their pace, there's no doubt that D'Amato's will be a durable destination for great food, service and, of course, fun.

Dinner served Monday-Wednesday, 5-10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m.; smoking area available.

Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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