San Morello brings upscale Italian to Detroit's Shinola Hotel

San Morello brings upscale Italian to Detroit's Shinola Hotel

Detroit has yet another chef with a James Beard Award pedigree planting roots here. Andrew Carmellini, the New York-based chef whose empire includes Locanda Verde, the Dutch and Bar Primi, opens the new San Morello for dinner service at the Shinola Hotel on Tuesday.

San Morello, a gorgeous space with prime frontage on Woodward and Grand River, will serve the upscale Southern Italian-style fare on which the chef has made his considerable reputation to a city that has shown no shortage of appetite for food from the boot, if the nightly packed house at nearby SheWolf is any indication.

It’s the first of four concepts that Carmellini and his partners in NoHo Hospitality Group, Luke Ostrom and Huntington Woods native Josh Pickard, plan to open at the hotel by spring. The others include cocktail spot Evening Bar (late December/early January), fried chicken walk-up Penny Red’s (spring) and the Brakeman, a beer hall (spring). 

Together, these destinations mark an impressive commitment by a chef who is proud to hail from the Midwest — Cleveland, to be exact — but has spent the last quarter century in New York. While he has restaurants in Miami and Baltimore, San Morello now marks his first foray into the region that raised him, and he’s happy to be here. “We could have gone to Vegas and opened a restaurant this year, but it’s interesting for us to come to Detroit particularly at this time. The team was all over it. Detroit’s been great, and the restaurant community has been amazing. Everyone’s been so welcoming,” says Carmellini.

“When we came out three years ago, we started to feel it right away. But even between then and now (Detroit) is almost unrecognizable. There’s been so much development downtown. It’s been pretty amazing to watch all the different stuff open up, all the new restaurants and boutique hotels that are opening up.”

And the spirit is contagious. While Carmellini has been intimately involved in San Morello’s design and will run the kitchen for the next few weeks as things ramp up, it’s his hand-picked team that will take charge when he goes home — and it’s a team that is here for the long haul. San Morello is more than just Carmellini dipping his toe into the Detroit restaurant scene because the press has been good of late and the water is warm; it’s a stake in the ground.

“We don’t get involved in a project unless we’re 100% on it. It’s true, I don’t live in Detroit, but that’s why I have a team here that’s been with me for a long time. (Chef de cuisine) Cory Barberio has worked for me for nine years and he moved here with his wife to run this place. Don Hammond, who is a Michigan native, worked in New York for Jean-Georges Vongerichten for a long time and we have a lot of mutual friends, he’s the chef of the hotel. Sol Andrews is the food and beverage director and just moved here with his family.

“They moved to Detroit and bought houses. We have a good amount of people on the team that worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, that are from Detroit or Michigan that used this as an opportunity to come back, which is really cool. Our internal team is really rallying around this. We wouldn’t sell this dream to all these people to move here if we were just licensing the name and handing them some recipes. We’re vested.”

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The commitment shows in the airy design of San Morello, a space blanketed in butterscotch hues and bright tile work. The team kept in mind the location status as an all-day restaurant in a bustling hotel, where morning light streams in from high windows to help those feasting on breakfast pizzas and calzones or a simple cappuccino and brioche get their day started. (It remains to be seen — literally — what the erecting of the 912-foot skyscraper on the Hudson’s site across the street will do to the view.) Service will be dinner-only for the first month or so, with breakfast and lunch planned to launch after the team runs the North American International Auto Show gauntlet in January.

The restaurant name comes from a town in Italy, of course, but Carmellini says it’s also a subliminal nod to Michigan: Morello is a type of cherry. “We wanted to do something Italian that was a little different than Shinola, which is a very American brand, so it could have its own identity separate from the hotel. There’s a craftsmanship that’s similar to what the hotel’s going to be about, but it’s a little bit different and not just one homogeneous thing.”

Diners can expect food that calls back to Sicily, Puglia and Campagna: “Coastal kind of cooking with seafood, but also mountain cooking with wood fires and meats like lamb. Very vibrant, a lot of acid, chilies, herbs and vinegar – 80% traditionally inspired and like a touch of American Italian just to bring it home a little bit,” says Carmellini, who has won two James Beard Awards and been a semifinalist multiple times.

Michigan oak and fruitwood will provide the fuel for the fire, and, like any restaurateur with a myriad of nearby farms and producers at his disposal, he plans to take advantage of the wonders of Michigan’s culinary bounty — within reason. “We’d be lying if we said we were going to do all Michigan produce. It’s December. But I think as the seasons progress we’ll start to implement that. We hit a lot of the urban farms over the summer to learn what was out there and what we could get. We’re looking forward to exploring that. It’ll be a big part of what we do in the summertime.”

He’s sourcing his charcuterie from local startup Gratiot Avenue Provisions, including a coppa, lonza and fiocco, along with a custom prosciutto that won’t be ready for another 17 months.

The menu itself will be familiar to anybody that has dined at other Carmellini restaurants, at least in the beginning. “Coming to a new place like this, especially with the opening, we’re going to do things we’ve done before that we know work really well. It’s a new place, a new staff, sometimes new ingredients — certain recipes that we have certain Italian specs for that maybe we can’t get we might have to adjust a little bit, but I would say this a combination of the last 10 years and the three Italian restaurants we have, adjusting it to some local ingredients,” says the chef, even as he admitted that he was already tweaking the menu for Tuesday’s service. “Restaurants evolve and they’re very organic, and that’s part of the process. I’m taking one pasta off the menu now and we’ll do a lasagna verde for the winter time.”

Menu items range from $9-$36, divided amongst Southern Italian dips (butternut squash with pistachio pesto and orange mostarda), antipasti (octopus salad with ‘nduja, potato and salsa giallo), pasta (spaghetti alla Ricci with Santa Barbara sea urchin, lemon and chili) and items from the wood-fired grill (grilled swordfish with Sheridan Acres beans and preserved tomato vinaigrette).

So now that San Morello is finally ready to open its doors, what is Carmellini most excited about? 

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the hotel. We have a private dining room here, we have little rooms around the hotel, a beautiful conservatory, so there’s opportunity to do really cool events. Doing things outside only food all the time is really interesting to us, besides charity both on a social level and a social justice level but also art and music. We did an amazing collaboration with John Dunivant at Theatre Bizarre a few months ago that was probably the greatest event I’ve ever done in my career, for 100% real. We had so much fun doing it, they were so cool, It was visually and experientially unbelievable.

“Honestly, after three years, being finally here and doing it – this is our thing this year. I’m really excited about the team and really proud even before we open because I’m really happy with the crew we have here, both our team that moved here and at the local level.”

At the Shinola Hotel

1400 Woodward Ave., Detroit


Opens Tue.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 5-11 p.m. Thu.-Sat.

Reservations available