Tiny, tasty

For a mini-state with fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, San Marino has made a lot of history. Founded in 301, it is the oldest republic in the world; its 400-year-old written constitution claims another longevity record, and its citizens once elected a government dominated by their communist party. With the opening in March of the Tre Monti Ristorante behind the San Marino Club on Big Beaver just west of John R, Detroiters will have an opportunity to sample its venerable culture and cuisine.

We have had a chance to learn something about its culture at weddings and other festive events held at the castle-like San Marino Club, which moved to Troy from Detroit in 1976. The new stand-alone structure on the grounds boasts a dramatic wooden spiral staircase, massive fireplaces, and a crossbow symbolic of the Crossbow Corps of San Marino's national "army." The high-ceilinged, Ron Rea-decorated dining room, which seats 130, features vintage photographs of local Sammarinians as well as artwork and artifacts from their homeland. In warm weather, a patio for al fresco dining, alongside three bocce courts, doubles the capacity.

Not surprisingly given their location near Rimini in northeast Italy, San Marino's chefs are known for their lighter approach to sauces and creams than that reflected in the southern Italian kitchen that reigns supreme in the United States. Richard Conover, the executive chef at Tre Monti, who worked at the Knollwood Country Club, is not from San Marino but has studied its fare, with the assistance of club veteran Maddalena "Nonna" Sarti, who prepares the house-made pasta and bread. Although most of the items on their menu look familiar, Nonna's creations — piada, a flat bread and spianata, a focaccia — are refreshingly different.

Considering the upscale decor, Tre Monti is reasonably priced, with most of its dinners, which include crisp and tangy green salads, costing less than $26. Moreover, several attractive regional Italian wines are available at a remarkable $18.

Mountainous San Marino is landlocked and without much in the way of lakes and rivers. Yet it is close enough to the Adriatic to specialize in maritime delights, one of which is the generous appetizer of large, well-prepared mussels sautéed in a sweet garlic-tomato broth ($11).

I wish I could be as positive about the too-salty fritto misto of fried rock shrimp and calamari tidbits. Select instead one of the seven gently charred thin-crusted personal pizzas baked in a brick oven. Those concerned about authenticity will be pleased to note that there is no exotica, such as pineapple or ahi, among the traditional combinations of cheese, mushrooms, spinach, prosciutto and sausage toppings.

Other possible starters might be antipasto, shrimp cocktail, bruschetta, several salads and minestrone alla Sammarinese, a rich tomato broth overflowing with vegetables, beans and pasta.

Nonna Lena's own hand-crafted pasta ($15) is an easy choice over the imported variety ($12), with her ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese or beef and veal of considerable merit.

Beyond the pasta, Conover offers 15 entrées, again sounding familiar, albeit with that light Sammarinese touch. For example, his simple risotto, tossed with onions, chicken broth, white wine and tomatoes ($13) or mushrooms or Bolognese sauce is deftly seasoned and unclumpy. Even more impressive is his take on grilled trout, flaky and moist, accompanied by vegetables al dente, red cabbage and a sampling of Nonna's ravioli ($22). However, the ravioli may be carbohydrate-redundant, since the trout, like most mains, is preceded by a hearty pasta side.

Equally satisfying is the frutti di mare, composed of mussels, clams and large shrimp presented over linguine in a gentle (perhaps a bit too gentle) tomato sauce ($26). The Marsala sauce with the substantial portion of tender veal with prosciutto and mozzarella is more distinctive.

Other interesting entrée options are beefsteak Florentine, osso buco alla Milanese, baked whitefish over artichokes and mushrooms in a lemon-caper sauce and the most expensive item on the menu, Dover sole piccante ($39).

San Marino's most famous dessert is Monte Titano, the emblematic three-peaked mountain for which the restaurant is named. Those peaks may be imagined on the warm chocolate lava cake that comes with contrapuntally cool vanilla ice cream. Children, who will be amused by the dessert, do not have a menu of their own. Instead, in a welcome innovation, they can order half portions from the regular bill of fare.

Although Detroit often fails to appear on lists of the best restaurant cities, perhaps because of our relative lack of four-star cutting-edge establishments, we are difficult to surpass when it comes to ethnic eateries. To be sure, if the decor and even menu copy at Tre Monti didn't emphasize the history and culture of San Marino, you would probably think you were enjoying typical northern Italian cooking. All the same, I wonder how many other more celebrated gastronomic centers can claim a restaurant that features the subtle culinary arts of the tiny nation that is far better known to philatelists than to gourmets.

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

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