At Cucina Lab Torino, Chef Elisabetta Balzola brings a piece of her hometown to Metro Detroit
By Markham Heid
Photography by Darrel Ellis
When Chef Elisabetta Balzola talks about her hometown of Turin, in northwest Italy, her pride is unmistakable. She describes the city’s history as a center of art and politics, as well as its proximity to southern France and to the sea. But mostly she talks about Turin’s food.
“Where I am from, everything is made by you — everything good comes from your hands,” she says, recalling the long, happy hours that she and her mother would spend preparing meals together in their family’s kitchen, and the delicious smells that always greeted her when she returned home. “This is our culture.”
At Cucina Lab Torino, the Troy restaurant that she opened late last year, Balzola says she hopes to share that culture with her guests. “For me, it’s not a restaurant, it’s like my home,” she says. “I say it’s a corner of Italy here in Michigan where people can enjoy our food and see how we do things in Italy.”
Balzola, her husband and her three children moved from Italy to Metro Detroit in 2014 (they came for her husband’s job at an automotive company). For a time, she ran a successful local catering business, but certain aspects of that job — having to prepare quantities of food hours or days ahead of time, and inevitably ending up with waste — were disagreeable to her. She wanted an opportunity to showcase her home country’s food in a way that would allow its authentic flavors and freshness to shine.
Unlike most restaurants, the menu at Cucina Lab changes daily and is shaped around the fresh ingredients Balzola and her team are able to source. While some dishes are reliably on offer (a succulent chicken Milanese, a decadent lasagna) many of the pasta courses, mains and desserts are wholly dependent on the season and ingredient availability.
Helping Balzola share her culinary heritage are a team of chefs and cooks who, like Balzola, were born and raised in Italy: Her pastry chef, Roberta Iorio, is from L’Aquila (in central Italy), and sous-chefs Silvia Acciaioli and Monica Dezzani are from Florence and Turin, respectively. “This mix of women is amazing because we all have different points of view and have worked with ingredients in different ways,” says Balzola, “so we compete a little bit and we are proud to show each other that our dish is best.”
Along with her crew of Italian compatriots, Balzola’s three children — and, on occasion, her husband — are also involved in the restaurant, helping with everything from building the outdoor seating area to waiting on guests to assisting in the kitchen. “We have been helping our mom in the kitchen since we were kids,” says Martina Balzola, 21, who is the restaurant’s PR manager, and also chips in as a waitress and bartender. “Helping out” often involved tasting their mother’s new recipes and culinary experiments, she adds. “Now we have dad cooking at home. He is a great cook, but we miss our mom’s experiments!”
Of course, there are no shortage of Italian restaurants in Metro Detroit. But Balzola says one thing that sets hers apart is her “taste memory” as an Italian expatriate. “Here, I think most [of the people] making this food are second- or third-generation [immigrants], and they have lost their palate, their memory, for what is in Italy,” she says. She adds, without a hint of condescension, that other Detroit-area restaurants offer wonderful Italian-inspired food. But she believes that hers will be one of the few — if not the only one — serving dishes that are indistinguishable from the food prepared in the kitchens of her hometown. “I want the taste to be as close to the real taste that you have in Italy,” she says.
Authenticity and freshness are recurring themes in conversations with Balzola. After cooking for years at a restaurant in Turin, she worked professionally as a cook on the Amalfi Coast and elsewhere in Italy. She learned to work with different ingredients and techniques. But while some things varied, she says freshness and simplicity were constants. “In Sorrento, when you make lemon cake, you go outside and pick a lemon from a tree,” she says.
Keeping with that tradition, Balzola and her team source as much organic, seasonal and local produce as they can from Michigan suppliers. But she says that she must import from Italy certain ingredients — cheeses, olive oils, cured meats — that can’t be found here. “I buy fresh vegetables here, and eggs …but then some flour, like for focaccia, I need Italian to get the true taste.”
While sourcing ingredients can get tricky, Balzola says that her recipes prioritize simplicity. “I don’t want to be a complicated chef or make complicated cuisine,” she says. “I want something very genuine and very real, and I always try to do that with fewer ingredients.” At Cucina Lab Torino, carryout orders must be placed several hours ahead of pickup, and dining room guests must make reservations. “Everything we make is in the moment, so I need time to plan and prepare,” she says. In-person diners can observe this preparation themselves: The restaurant’s kitchen juts out into the dining space. “What we do is out in the open. Nothing is hidden,” says Balzola, who, along with her team, also offers cooking classes.
Despite the chef’s penchant for preparation, her restaurant’s launch was rocky: Just one week after its October opening, in-person dining was paused due to Covid-19 concerns. Asked why she chose to open at such a fraught time, Balzola says that the pandemic had already significantly delayed Cucina Lab’s launch, which was originally planned for April. She says she couldn’t wait any longer to start welcoming guests to her space. “It’s OK. Life is like that,” she says, laughing. “You have to make the best of a situation.”
Agnolotti Del Plin Recipe
Balzola says agnolotti del plin is a well-known dish from the Piedmont region of Italy. It gets its name from an Italian colloquialism for “pinch”—a reference to the way the two sheets of pasta are pinched together to form the shape of the agnolotti. Balzola says that older generations also call this agnolotti al tovagliolo (on the napkin) because it was so delicious that it did not require any condiments and could be eaten directly from a napkin.
For the dough:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
For the filling:
1 tablespoon butter
¼ pound veal shoulder
¼ pound pork tenderloin
2 leaves of cabbage, cut into small pieces
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and black pepper
For the sauce:
2 ounces salted butter
4 sage leaves
To make the dough, mound the flour on a large wooden cutting board. Make a deep well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs. Using a fork, beat together the eggs, incorporating the flour little by little. Start kneading the dough using the palms of your hands. Knead for about 10 minutes — until the dough is smooth and very elastic. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
To make the filling, add butter to a medium saucepan. Place it on burner set to high heat. Add the veal and pork and brown on all sides for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the diced cabbage, carrot and celery. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, to taste, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Mix well and transfer the filling to a bowl and let it cool.
Returning to the dough, you’ll need a pasta machine for this next part. Pull off about one-third of the dough’s total mass, and use the pasta machine to roll it into thin sheets about 3 inches wide. To do this, start with the machine on its highest (fattest) setting, roll the dough through, and then repeat the process until you reach its lowest (thinnest) setting. Repeat in two more batches with the remainder of the dough.
Lay the resulting pasta sheet on a lightly floured surface with its longer side facing you. Trim the edges so that they are all straight. Using a tablespoon, scoop equally sized portions of the filling and place them in a row along the length of the pasta sheet, leaving a 1½-inch border of dough on all sides of the filling. Each dollop of filling should also be approximately 1½ inches away from the next.
Take the edge of the pasta closest to you and fold it up and over the filling. The dough should form 1 large pocket over the dollops of filling. Seal the agnolotti by gently pressing the pasta with your index finger, being sure not to drag your finger, which risks ripping the dough. Be certain that you are sealing and pressing out any pockets of air as you work. You should also be pressing and sealing the dough between each of the scoops of filling. Snip off the excess dough and also cut apart each of the sealed dollops of filling. Let the shaped agnolotti rest for 24 minutes. Bring salted water to a boil. Add the fresh agnolotti, stirring gently, and cook them for 3-4 minutes or until the agnolotti are bobbing on the surface of the water.
Meanwhile, melt the 2 ounces of butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Lay the sage leaves in the pan and cook them in the butter for 1 minute, then remove.
Add 1 cup of water to the butter, then swirl the pan and simmer for about 2 minutes, reducing the liquid by half. Drain the agnolotti and add them to the butter sauce in the pan. Toss and cook them for about 1 minute over medium heat until the sauce is bubbling. Remove and server with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano.