After building his restaurant empire in New York, famed chef Andrew Carmellini and his NoHo Hospitality Group settle into Detroit’s Shinola Hotel.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, Andrew Carmellini would go with his family to the West Side Market every Sunday to buy produce. The year-round public market is located a few minutes from downtown, and “nobody went downtown,” he says.
“Now you go downtown, there’s young people living there, people jogging down the street,” he says of his hometown. It’s similar to what he sees in downtown Detroit, noting the local culinary scene boasting several chef-driven restaurants. “I really like being a part of that (revitalization) even though I’m not from Detroit,” he says of the city where his NoHo Hospitality Group has opened several food and beverage concepts, including flagship restaurant San Morello as well as The Brakeman beer hall and Penny Red’s fried chicken carryout counter, in the Shinola Hotel.
“It’s interesting when you tell people, especially East Coast people, you’re opening up a hotel, a restaurant in Detroit, and (they ask), ‘Why would you do that?’ Not everyone understands what’s going on in other cities in America (like Detroit and Cleveland) that there’s a big reurbanization,” he says.
NoHo Hospitality Group has restaurants in New York as well as Miami and Baltimore, where they found a local partner and they took the same approach in Detroit. Carmellini says Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis would stay at the Greenwich Hotel, where Carmellini’s Locanda Verde is located, when he was in New York. Also one of Carmellini’s partners, Josh Pickard, a Huntington Woods native, often was “preaching the gospel” of Michigan. Kartsotis approached Carmellini about opening up in the hotel, a collaboration between Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock and the luxury watch brand.
Before the celebrity collaborations and award-winning restaurants, Carmellini’s culinary path began with humble beginnings. His mom was a good cook, and he liked to eat, so he got into cooking at a young age.
When he graduated from high school in 1989, Carmellini, 48, says everyone in his class went on to college except for two, and Carmellini was one of them.
“One guy went into the military and the other one — me — went to cooking school, which was unheard of. Everyone, other parents were concerned. They’re like, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to make money? How are you going to be a quote unquote professional?’ It just wasn’t something that people did. It was a business full of psychopaths, rejects from society. And I was never going to college. I was either going to Berklee School of Music or culinary school.”
The music connoisseur was accepted to the top music school, but his choice of pursuing culinary arts turned out well for him. He moved to New York, cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, including Valentino Mercatile’s Michelin two-star San Domenico in Emilio-Romagna, Italy, and later at three-star Michelin starred L’Arpege in Paris, before coming back to New York to be chef de cuisine at famed chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud for seven years.
In May 2009, actor Robert De Niro approached Carmellini to reopen his restaurant in The Greenwich Hotel as Locanda Verde, a rustic Italian restaurant that garnered a favorable review in The New York Times as well as a James Beard nomination. From there, he went on to open several other concepts in his NoHo Hospitality Group portfolio, including the Dutch and French-inspired Lafayette.
Opened in December, San Morello is inspired by regional Italian cuisine that showcases dishes and ingredients from the country’s coastal areas with some familiar dishes such as My Grandmother’s Ravioli. It’s not a cutting-edge dish, Carmellini says, but it’s an homage to a favorite dish that stays true to the spirit of the food. His grandmother immigrated to Miami from Italy in the 1930s, and her repertoire of dishes was actually more Southern influenced — they would eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day, for example. But there was also polenta.
“It’s more of like a Sunday ravioli. It’s got parts that would be hers if she had a team of like eight chefs every day,” Carmellini says.
Other staples of the dinner menu include the wood-fired pizzas (they initially offered a luxurious pizza with black truffles, another example of how this is not your grandmother’s fare), southern Italian dips such as ricotta with hot honey, pastas and hearty entrees of wood-fired lamb shank osso buco and branzino.
The menu is expected to change to reflect the seasons, and as they get settled in, Carmellini and his team are looking forward to exploring the possibilities of Detroit’s urban farmers’ bounty.
While Carmellini doesn’t live in Detroit, he says nine people from New York moved to Detroit to work at San Morello — and three of them have already put down roots here.
Mezze Rigatoni Pugliese
For the sauce:
1 15-ounce can chickpeas
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound spicy Italian sausage
3 cups of Carmellini’s Basic Tomato Sauce (recipe below; any basic fresh recipe will work well)
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
For the broccoli rabe and rigatoni:
1 bunch broccoli rabe, cleaned of outer leaves and bottom stems trimmed
1 pound rigatoni
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced very thin
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
To finish the dish:
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup grated pecorino cheese
To prepare the sauce:
Drain the chickpeas well, reserving the liquid. Blend half the chickpeas (about 1 cup) and all their liquid on high until the mixture forms a smooth paste, about 1 minute. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Squeeze the sausage out of the casing and add the meat to the pan. Brown it, stirring regularly and breaking the meat up into small pieces with a spoon. Add the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the chickpea puree and the fennel seed and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat until the mixture forms a loose sauce and the flavors are combined, about 15 minutes.
To prepare the broccoli rabe and rigatoni:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the broccoli rabe until the stems are just softened and the color has deepened, about 90 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water to immediately stop the cooking process. Return the water to a boil, add the rigatoni and cook until it’s al dente. Drain but do not rinse the pasta. Warm the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium sauté pan. Add the broccoli rabe, garlic, red pepper flakes and the remaining half of the chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper and sauté until the greens are well coated, about 1 minute.
To finish the dish:
Return the rigatoni to the pot. Add the sauce and cook on medium-high heat, mixing well, until the pasta is well coated, about 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter, olive oil and half the pecorino cheese. Transfer the pasta and sauce to a large serving dish and pour the broccoli rabe and chickpea mixture over the top. Top with the rest of the pecorino cheese and serve immediately.
Carmellini’s Basic Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 cups
10 cups good quality Italian canned tomatoes (like San Marzano)
1 heaping teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 head garlic
1 ¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 packed cup of basil leaves, washed with stems on
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Open the canned tomatoes into a large pot with wide surface area, and break them apart into large chunks with your hands. Add the salt. Turn the stove to medium heat and let the tomatoes cook down at a lazy bubble for about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove excess liquid with a ladle. Smash the tomatoes as they cook with a wooden spoon so the sauce gradually becomes smoother. Cut the top of the garlic head so that the skin stays on but the tops of the cloves are exposed. Combine the garlic, oil, basil leaves and red pepper flakes in a separate small pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. As soon as the basil leaves crack take the mixture off the heat and reserve. When the tomato sauce is reduced by half to two-thirds and is thick but still bright red, strain the oil into the pot and stir to combine. Cook the sauce for about 10 more minutes at a lazy bubble. Stir occasionally to keep from sticking. When the oil and tomatoes have completely emulsified and the sauce looks whole turn off the heat and stir it up a bit with a masher or a hand blender set on low. Mix the sauce with the pasta or gnocchi while it’s hot, or allow the sauce to cool before storing in the freezer or fridge.
1400 Woodward Ave., Detroit