A bit on the clandestine side, fully one week after officially opening, La Rondinella had no published phone number, a website with no content, and took no reservations.
It took some investigation and eventually a phone call to a somewhat helpful employee at Supino Pizza next door to yield some answers. Yep, they’re opened, but no, they actually don’t have a phone number (or at least one they were willing to give out).
So I said, “Actually, I’m calling because I’d like to come down there for dinner. The answer (almost inaudible against the clamor of a busy pizzeria kitchen): “Ok, well, then just come on down!”
So, that following Tuesday, I did.
Thankfully, they do have an address and quite surprisingly, their name is splashed in white neon on the front window. It’s La Rondinella, on 2453 Russell Street, right in the heart of the Eastern Market, hiding in plain sight.
Owner Dave Mancini’s La Rondinella is a small but right-sized restaurant, offering what I would describe as Contemporary Peasant Italian food with approximately 40 seats for dining and an additional dozen pedestal stools at their bar. At that size, once you step through the front door onto their polished hardwood floors, you ARE actually standing in their rather austere dining room looking down its length, featuring free-standing tables in the foreground and a long wood pew banquette against its southern wall, with chairs opposite.
La Rondinella’s décor is otherwise accented by pressed-tin ceiling tiles, cream-colored walls and zinc-topped tables set with gleaming white china and polished-contemporary flat and stemware.
It’s a very simple and clean look.
In contrast to those design cues, once seated and looking back towards the front door you just entered, you see something quite different. With the white neon signage hanging in the window and the broad periwinkle blue and white pinstriped awning guarding the front sidewalk, you might think you were in a boutique fudge shop or an ice cream parlor. Odd but interesting.
Now, I haven’t yet mentioned the lighting, and yes there is some lighting. Some.
Let’s just say that I recommend you arrive with a full charge on your smartphone because the flashlight app can really drain your battery. It did, however, prove quite useful in reading the menu.
Speaking of the menu, it’s printed in faded blue on one side of a light grey cardstock of 6” x 11” that, in dim light, makes reading its category headings of Antipasti, Insalate, Sides, Farinate, Mains and Dolci manageable but discerning the menu’s items and especially their descriptions much more challenging.
Each category heading has between 3 and 6 choices, which provided plenty of diversity and interest for all 5 at my table. Everyone found something different they wanted to try and this is what was sampled:
Under the Antipasti heading, I sampled the Grissini di Nigella, which are long, pencil-like stick-crackers made from Supino’s pizza bread next door. They were fun and novel, but lacking the complementary bread many restaurants offer, the $2 for a half-dozen wispy sticks seemed, well, odd. On the other hand, the Polpette, a bowl of Meatballs in Marinara with Toasted Ciabatta and Parmigiano Reggiano, was wonderful.
There are 3 Insalate offerings, and the Mista with tender greens tossed in a Labne Vinaigrette with Shaved Carrot, Toasted Hazelnuts and Crispy Sage was the one everyone wanted to try and all were happy with the choice.
The Farinate menu category contained 3 choices of a type of round, flat, street bread made from chick pea flour and resembling a thick pizza crust. We chose the “Parks” named after the chef. This one was topped with Fresh Mozzarella, Chevre, Fresh Basil, Plum Tomato and Grana Padano. The crust is fork tender and, like any pizza, tastes like the toppings put upon it.
La Rondinella’s 6 Mains are their entrees, and I sampled 3 of them. I was most impressed with the house-made Ricotta Gnocchi with Chicken and Collard Green Ragu and Primo Sale and the equally satisfying Guazzaretto di Calamari, a Squid and Potato Stew (Ragu) with Botarga Butter on Toasted Ciabatta. The evening’s choice of “seasonal” Lasagne was their Lasagne di Crespelle, which was made with crepe rather than pasta. While it was quite interesting and flavorful, it didn’t have an accompanying sauce, which I think I would have enjoyed.
La Rondinella does have a choice of Dolci (house-made desserts), and I sampled two of them. Their Cannolli with Chocolate Sauce and Pistachio’s and the Torta Caprese, a dense Chocolate Tart with Hazelnut and Grapefruit, were both great choices to end an enjoyable meal.
Now, for all of my vegetarian and/or vegan readers, this is a restaurant you may want to have on your speed dial. Oops! Check that; they don’t have a phone. Well, let’s just say you’d be just about on equal footing with your meat-centric friends while dining at La Rondinella. Each item on their menu is clearly marked with a (V) Vegetarian and (VV) Vegan where applicable, and that would be…let me count, 1,2,3,4,5…13 items, not including desserts.
Regarding the service, it was quite amazingly professional and crisp, and that’s saying something for a restaurant that’s only a week old. Each course was timed perfectly, with new plates for sharing, new (and appropriate) silverware set before us preceding each course, and our wine and drink orders replenished as needed and requested. Seamless and efficient, I think, would sum it up best.
As for the rest, here’s my box score. *(5 being highest/best where numbers are listed)
Menu Intimidation Factor MIF4:
Unless you read Italian, you’re going to need to read each of the descriptions below the dish’s name to decipher what you’d be getting. Having said that, they’re generally ingredients and products you recognize once you get out your flashlight and read the fine print.
An eclectic mix of jeans to suits and dresses.
The Crowd 3.5:
My friends who either live or work in the city center (and some do both) say that because of the proliferation of new restaurants in the city, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the locals from the burbites at new restaurants. Apparently, the out of towners are becoming so acclimated to Detroit’s neighborhoods, streets and activities, they no longer arrive at venues with an initial look of relief and accomplishment but more like they kinda fit in. I polled some of that night’s customers for fun and found that while many came from the Indian Village, Riverfront Towers, Grosse Pointe and the area immediately adjacent to the Eastern Market, there were actually a few diners from West Bloomfield (including me).
40 seats, 400 free parking spaces surrounding the restaurant. If that isn’t enough to make you confident that you won’t have to drive around in circles looking for a space, I don’t know if I can do any better than this.
Bang for the Buck 4.5:
With Appetizers from $2 to $9 and Entrees from $12 to $17, reasonably priced wine and spirits, and free parking, you get quite a bit of Bang for your Buck compared to many of Detroit’s newest restaurants.
Food Stuff 4.0:
It’s Italian, and La Rondinella executes it with a refreshing, contemporary interpretation of classic and peasant-style dishes, with enough mainstream to make you feel confident that you’ll be enjoying the choices you make.
Energy, Vibe, & the Cool-Wow Factor 2.5:
Although La Rondinella’s dining room and bar is attractive enough, the food will impress you more. I arrived at 5 pm and within 2 hours, every seat was taken. And keep in mind that for the most part, that happened by word of mouth only. In fact, one diner that evening arrived for his 3rd visit (and they had only been open 6 days total). It’s an under-the-radar kind of vibe that only comes from the fact that unless you live above the restaurant (which one diner that night actually did), you had to do your Yelp, Trip Advisor, Detroit Eater, local investigation homework to score a seat. Anyone that diligent, persistent and dedicated has his or her own energy and cool-wow factor going.
Location: 2453 Russell Street, Detroit, MI 48207
Reservations: None…(Rumor has it they are considering honoring telepathic reservations.)
Dinner: Tuesday thru Saturday beginning at 5 pm
They accept all the usual plastic cards and are wheelchair accessible right off the sidewalk.