Marinara on Michigan

Deliziosa, an informal Mediterranean bistro that has been open since January 2005, is one of Dearborn's best-kept secrets. Perhaps the tight-lipped local foodies know what they're up to, since the tiny storefront, in a strip mall west of Military Street, seats just 40.

The creation of Lebanese owner-chef Hassan Awada, Deliziosa features traditional Italian cuisine with a few unconventional twists. For example, he offers warm pita rolls instead of the expected crusty loaf, hummus and an Asian-sesame salad among his starters, "Ben and Andy" noodles tossed in cream sauce and veal-less osso buco and scallopini Marsala.

But Awada, who used to cook at the nearby L.A. Express, certainly knows his way around an Italian kitchen. And best of all, with few entrées over $15 and virtually all of his portions gargantuan, he scores well on any cost-benefit calculation, even factoring in the paper napkins and oilcloth table coverings in his minimally decorated room.

Considering those portions, you might pass on the appetizers that average around $7. That would be a mistake, even if it means having to doggie-bag a main course. For example, the gambari risso, heaps of little rock shrimp sautéed with vegetables, awash in an earthy marinara cream sauce and accompanied by suitably crunchy risotto is inspired. Similarly, Awada's take on bruschetta, two massive chunks of pesto-accented toasted baguette slices topped with roasted peppers easily passes muster.

Other well-conceived firsts are somewhat heavily breaded sautéed eggplant with tomato and mozzarella and, moving away from Italy, steamed New Zealand mussels meunière, with a zesty lemon-cream sauce, adorned, surprisingly, with fresh spinach leaves. One can also begin the meal with mozzarella and tomatoes over crustini, breaded shrimp with cocktail sauce or one of seven hefty salads.

The mains come with soup or salad. On one occasion, the soup was a lemon-chicken-rice preparation that compared favorably to Greektown's egg-lemon broths. Of the two huge misnamed "side" salads, a green and a Caesar, the latter is the choice even though it lacks anchovies. Both are enhanced with subtle dressings that cling gently to the greenery.

Annie Leblanc, an especially helpful and cheery server moonlighting from her daytime teaching job, recommended the fillet portabella, which at $16.95 is the most expensive item on the menu. The thick 8-ounce serving, cooked rare as requested, floats on a slightly vinegary demi-glace sauce and comes with crunchy vegetables and un-Mediterranean mashed potatoes. There is no problem, however, substituting those out-of-place potatoes with a solid pasta side.

More unusual was that veal-less osso buco that consists either of a beef or lamb shank, sautéed with carrots, tomatoes, celery, garlic and onions and then oven-baked. Although the meat fell easily from the bone, the seasonings, oregano and rosemary, were understated.

The seafood entrées include salmon with lemon sauce or Florentine style with marinara, sashimi-grade tuna steak over pasta in either red or white sauce and, again, apparently originating some distance from Italy, almond-crusted tilapia baked with artichoke sauce over rice. Old standbys chicken Marengo, Marsala, and piccata appear under the menu category "chicken entrées," which curiously contains that fowl-free classic, eggplant Parmesan.

There are no wildcards among the 13 diverse pasta dishes, unless you think risotto belongs in a category of its own. Linguine a la gambari, a generous amount of nicely sautéed shrimp with artichokes and roasted red peppers in a lush lemon-caper sauce, reflects chef Awada's abilities.

Any Italian restaurant with culinary pretensions should be able to turn out an accomplished linguine Bolognese. Deliziosa does just fine with this culinary gold standard — the meat sauce, sautéed with zucchini, was rich and zesty, the linguine appeared al dente as promised.

Most of the other usual pasta suspects such as frutti di mare, primavera and lasagna appear on Deliziosa's menu but often with intriguing ingredients. One ravioli, for example, is stuffed with salmon and bathed in a vodka-cream sauce. Those looking for leaner cuisine might want to steer clear of the pastas because most of them are bathed in creamy sauces, even the marinara. Awada, of course, will substitute simple oil and garlic if you so desire.

The two made-in-house desserts, cannoli and, especially, warm bread pudding smothered with cool vanilla ice cream, constitute a soothing end to a pleasing experience. Incidentally, what is this fascination with carrot cake? Like so many restaurants that outsource desserts, Deliziosa also serves someone else's carrot cake — if anyone cares.

Carrot cake aside, the secret is out, at least beyond Dearborn. Deliziosa is one of those rare local establishments that delivers outstanding rustic Italian cuisine at reasonable prices in an intimate setting. I hope this exposure doesn't ruin a good thing.

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

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