Paesano Restaurant in Ann Arbor says goodbye to Chef Isabella, promotes David Whitney
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
Michael Roddy believes in following his nose — and that's good news for a man who owns a restaurant.
When Roddy, owner Ann Arbor’s Paesano Restaurant and Wine Bar, hired Isabella Nicoletti as the restaurant’s executive chef more than 12 years ago, he let this Italian native who had come to find the American dream drive the menu. The colorful Nicoletti went on to create seasonal specials and regional offerings from the Veneto region of Italy, where she grew up. Her name and the 220-seat Paesano’s, located on Washenaw west of Arborland shopping center, became entwined.
But Nicoletti leaves at the end of the year, handing her chef’s hat over to a man she’s trained for the past decade. Sous chef David Whitney takes over Sunday, Jan. 2.
Whitney came straight out of the culinary arts program at Washtenaw Community College a decade ago. While most culinary arts graduates travel from one restaurant to another, Whitney stayed to learn under Nicoletti, Roddy said.
“We have an abundance of culinary students from Oakland, Schoolcraft and Washtenaw who come here because of European-trained Isabella.”
Now, it will be Whitney’s turn to shape the menu.
“There’s no getting around that we’re an Italian restaurant that uses fresh, healthy, rustic and seasonal food,” Roddy said.
“But (Whitney) will leave his own stamp. He wants to do more locally grown/made items, such as cheese for our cheese plate. I’m not going to scrap what we’ve built on, but he will have his own style.”
He is, perhaps, a bit less adventuresome than Nicoletti, Roddy said.
“Isabella likes to expose her wild side. She had beef tongue on the fall menu. She had snails once because she used to catch snails on the grass when she was growing up in Italy. Isabella was a talent right out of the gate, and we followed our nose. Now we will follow our nose with David.”
Still, it’s a giant change for a restaurant that has grown each year, much of that owed to Nicoletti, affectionately known in the community as Chef Isabella.
She has offered cooking demos around Washtenaw County, from Whole Foods Market to the Ann Arbor District Library. She’s appeared on Fox TV and at Williams Sonoma stores around Metro Detroit.
Nicoletti is leaving to become a private or corporate chef, but will remain in Michigan, Roddy said. She lives in Madison Heights.
When Roddy hired Nicoletti, he said, “we were looking for someone to differentiate us from other Italian restaurants. We’d always been rustic Italian, living the Mediterranean diet, and we’ve never been a red sauce Italian restaurant. But (Nicoletti) gave us the legitimacy to be authentic Italian.”
She took her cues from her northern Italy homeland, creating specials that change weekly. Some 40 percent of what’s ordered now comes off the specials menu, Roddy said. Then she created a section of the menu for seasonal offerings, such as the winter gnocchi seasoned with fennel or clam pasta now on the menu. Another 40 percent of daily receipts are from this section, Roddy said. That leaves only 20 percent that comes from the original menu.
“It’s a small part of what we were before Isabella,” Roddy said.
In 2001, Roddy remodeled the restaurant he and his wife, Bridget, opened in 1984 to reflect the Italian roadhouse menu Nicoletti had created: The colors were warmer, stone was added to the dÃ©cor to create a more rustic feel.
“The remodeling followed her food,” Roddy said. The move worked. Even with Sept. 11, sales shot up.
And except for 2009, Paesano’s has seen growth every year since it opened in 1984, Roddy said. Carry out wine sales lead the current growth, followed by catering and then the dining room. Traffic has picked up not only for Paesano’s but also for other Ann Arbor restaurants since the fall, he said.
“People are dying to get out.”