Dante's journey

Jan 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tucked away in a strip mall in Lake Orion, Vannelli Express has a provocative sign in the window that reads, "Let Dante do it." The "Dante" in question is Dante Vannelli, 65, who stands behind the counter in a starched white chef's coat preparing such Italian staples as pasta, paninis, salads and other classics. His mostly carryout spot does have a few tables, perfect for a quick lunch or a small dinner party.

METRO TIMES: Your family has been in the restaurant business forever. Where did it start and how has it evolved?

DANTE VANNELLI: My father and his brother came from Italy in 1920 when he was 20. They found themselves working on the railroad, my uncle and him down in Oklahoma. They bought a couple of tickets to Beloit, Wis., When they got to Chicago and changed trains to go to Beloit, they were told that they had tickets to go to Detroit. My father asked my uncle if he knew anybody in Beloit, which he didn't. So he said, "What's the difference, we'll go to Detroit." So they ended up in Detroit. My father married my mother in 1928. He was from Montecatini, which is in Tuscany, and she was from San Gimignano, which is in Tuscany, about 30 minutes away. In 1929, they opened Vannelli downtown in the Book Tower garage, which is the Book Cadillac garage at Washington Boulevard and State. All the movers- and shakers-to-be came into that restaurant — people like Jim Roach who ended up CEO of General Motors. He was a supervisor then. Over the years the corporate world and the literary and entertainment field people grew with my father, who ended up moving to Woodward Avenue across from Palmer Park in 1948. Vannelli and Joe Muer had the first two liquor licenses issued in the state of Michigan after Prohibition. My father sold Vannelli's in 1966 after I quit law school to go into the restaurant business. He said, "You'll never be in the restaurant business with me. You studied too hard and learned too many other things. You'd be stupid to be in the restaurant business." So I went away to Italy and studied under a chef in Florence. I fell in love with the business.

MT: If you had the opportunity to do it over, that is, if you were 20 years old, would you do things differently?

VANNELLI: I would do the same thing as a profession, but I wouldn't open a restaurant downtown. I would have done this concept, a simpler concept: fine dining to go. There's a place for this, especially with both parents working today, they don't have time to cook.

MT: Do you undercook your food so that when people take it home they can finish it without overcooking it?

Vannelli: Everything's made the way you want it to be. You don't over-microwave it. You add a little bit of water and reheat the food for 20 seconds or so. Heat it. Don't cook it — protein or pasta.

MT: You've had full-service restaurants and now a mostly carryout operation. What would you recommend to someone who wants to get into the business today?

VANNELLI: Not to. The people who know how to do it don't have the money to do it. The people that have the money to do it, they don't know what they're doing. Usually when they're successful, it's been in another field. They have frequented smooth-running, successful operations and have no clue what's going on in the kitchen. They go, "Man, look at this place! It's jammin'. Look how easy it is. It's got good service." If they were a little bird on the wall sitting in the kitchen listening to the commotion, the cacophony, they'd never want to be in this business. Who didn't show up for work? Why? You can't let them go 'cause you need them anyway. I don't care how many people you know, you don't survive on the ones you know. What I've got now, this is clean. I don't need anyone. I can do this myself.

MT: How has the restaurant business changed since you got into it?

VANNELLI: There's two directions that it's taken. People have traveled and become educated in foods, whether it's French or Italian, anywhere in the world; they understand that Italian food isn't just pizza and spaghetti. French food isn't French fries. Mexican food isn't just tacos. Mexico has wonderful fresh fish. That is the good thing. The bad thing is the way people adulterate classic dishes or create names for dishes. For instance: Tuscan potatoes. I was raised in Tuscany. I spent many years in Tuscany. I have no clue what a Tuscan potato is. But Tuscan is the word of Italian food today. Anything Tuscan. All I know is Tuscan means to me a lot of food is on the grill or wild game, roasts, rosemary. Simple fresh ingredients, prepared simply so that you can taste the essence of what you're eating. Follow the seasons. Keep it simple. Cook to your taste. If you have good taste, the food will be good.

Vannelli Express is at 179 N. Park (Lapeer Rd.), Lake Orion; 248-693-9971.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]