After nearly 45 years, Café Cortina finds new ways to grow and flourish while staying true to its family roots
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Back in March, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all restaurants to cease dine-in operations because of the pandemic, chef Luis Ernesto Antopia, who helms the kitchen at Café Cortina in Farmington Hills, found himself with a lot of time on his hands. “I was going nuts,” he recalls. “I was trying to look for something to do.”
First, in an effort to use all the ingredients at the restaurant before they spoiled, he made about 350 lasagnas to help feed hospital workers. He also gave the kitchen (“my laboratory,” as he likes to call it) a facelift, resulting in a brighter look.
Then he tackled the project nearest to his heart: the restaurant’s garden, which he oversees every year. But this time, he went all out, tilling the ground, building raised beds, breaking down pallets and sharing progress reports on Instagram. He even put up a sign that says “The Chef’s Garden” — in case anyone was wondering who tended it.
By late summer the garden was in full bloom, teeming with tomatoes, fresh herbs like rosemary and basil and salad greens. “It’s really special, especially this year,” says Antopia — who can literally see Café Cortina from his house — of the garden.
That bounty led to the creation of an intimate Chef’s Garden Table where diners can enjoy a family-style dinner with vegetables and herbs straight from the source. The table, which seats six to 12 people and features a multicourse, prix fixe menu different from the restaurant’s regular offerings, has been a hit: It has booked up nearly every night since launching in July. (The restaurant plans to keep it open this winter.)
For owner Rina Tonon, who founded Café Cortina with her late husband, Adriano, in 1976, the garden is a dream come to life. “[Adriano and I] were driving one day and we found this apple orchard,” she recalls, describing the restaurant’s original site. “We looked at each other and said, wouldn’t it be neat to have a garden-to-table restaurant, a farm restaurant? Like they do in Italy?”
Tonon — whose parents, immigrants from the Italian island of Ponza, ran a pizzeria on the northwest side of Detroit — got her mother to share her recipes with Adriano, who’d grown up in Italy’s Veneto region. “He was a northerner, so my mother taught him our sauces,” she says. Café Cortina became known for dishes that are common on Italian menus today but were perhaps not familiar locally in those days: carbonara, primavera, cacio e pepe. “We started doing carbonara, the first dish that I learned to make in Rome,” says Tonon. “Nobody knew carbonara [at the time in Detroit].”
In 1993, Adriano passed away at age 50, and Tonon was left to run the restaurant on her own. Her son Adrian, then 21, said he would join the family business: He went to Italy for an unpaid apprenticeship and returned six months later well versed in Italian food and cooking.
“When Adrian came back, he had this new love and passion, for the restaurant business,” says Tonon, adding that it reinvigorated her to “continue the legacy.” Now, Adrian oversees culture and logistics with the restaurant’s management team (he also works in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office as the 24-hour economy nightlife ambassador), while younger son Giancarlo heads up marketing and administrative operations.
That focus on family is what keeps customers coming back to Café Cortina to celebrate milestones like baptisms and weddings. Antopia and his wife, Holly, held their own wedding there in 2012, the same year Antopia, now 35, started working at the restaurant. He didn’t expect to stay long — he came on as sous-chef and planned to leave after a year — but in the following years he’s put down roots after discovering a shared love of family and tradition.
Indeed, those two pillars drive his own cooking. Antopia (who adopted his middle name as his “chef name” because there was another Luis in the kitchen when he started working at the restaurant) grew up in Georgia with his grandparents, immigrants from Spain. His grandfather raised horses, so his grandmother would wake up at 5 a.m. to make sure breakfast was ready by 8 a.m. She taught him to make bread and classic Spanish dishes like paella.
Antopia — who moved to Michigan as a teen before going on to Schoolcraft College and the lauded Culinary Institute of America — credits cooking with his beloved abuela as the foundation of his love of food. “Being with them and knowing how important meals are and how dinners will bring family together, that was the part I really liked.”
His grandmother also had a garden, which fostered his love and appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables — feelings that live on at Café Cortina today. “We always had a garden in the back of the restaurant,” Tonon says. “That garden is a tribute to [Adriano]. Chef Ernesto continued our legacy.”
Cacio e Pepe
The beauty of cacio e pepe is its simplicity, says chef Antopia. The dish calls for only a few — albeit high-quality — ingredients: pasta, butter, cheese (preferably Pecorino Romano) and freshly cracked pepper.
- Kosher Salt
- 6 ounces pasta (tonnareli, tagliolini, bucatini or spaghetti, or see below for fresh pasta recipe)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 3/4 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
Make sure all ingredients are room temperature.
Drop pasta in boiling water (Antopia recommends salting the water “like the Mediterranean”). If using fresh pasta, it will only take about 30 seconds to cook. If using dry pasta, cook according to package instructions.
Place a tablespoon of butter in pan on low heat. Add the freshly cooked pasta to pan with butter.
Add handful of cheese to pasta. Add 2 ounces of hot pasta water. Stir pasta to incorporate all ingredients.
Crack fresh pepper over pasta and serve.
- 170 grams 00 flour (finely ground Italian flour), plus some for dusting
- 55 grams durum flour
- 9 egg yolks
- 15 milliliters extra-virgin olive oil
- 45 milliliters water plus more as needed
Combine both flours in a bowl. Add the egg yolks, oil and water, adding one ingredient at a time and mixing until the dough comes together, about 2-3 minutes.
The dough is ready when you stretch it with your hands and it gently pulls back into place.
Using a pasta sheet roller attachment for a KitchenAid stand mixer, process the dough pieces by passing through about 3-4 times, folding in half after feeding it through. (Make sure the dough is floured on both sides.)
Pass the pasta through 3-4 times at each setting until setting 4. Switch to the spaghetti attachment to make noodles. It’s now ready to cook.