Wood-fired pizza restaurant Mani Osteria & Bar set to open by April in downtown Ann Arbor
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
An Ann Arbor native who’s worked on the marketing end of several renowned East Coast restaurants is converting a downtown Ann Arbor storefront into his first eatery.
Adam Baru will open Mani Osteria & Bar at 341 E. Liberty this spring, after extensive renovations.
The restaurant will mirror the East Coast trend toward small pizzerias, but with a twist: It will have two wood-fired pizza ovens creating the centerpiece product.
“Some wonderful restaurants have opened,” Baru said. “I just thought (they were) fantastic.”
The location is known to longtime Ann Arbor residents as the former Handicraft Furniture building at the northwest corner of South Division.
More recently, the building has been used for upper-level offices and lower-level retail space, such as the Ragstock clothing store that opened in 2010.
Baru is excited about his concept, which builds a small-plate and casual dining experience around the two large wood-fired ovens that will dominate the back of the restaurant and cook with 900-degree heat.
He’s also excited about the location: “I knew if I came back to Ann Arbor, I wanted to be downtown,” he said.
But he soon found that the evolving “midtown” location offered a newer option in an area that hadn’t always welcomed smaller retailers or restaurants. That’s changed due to new construction in the area — like Sterling 4 Eleven Lofts at East Washington — and the repositioning of the former TCF Bank building into McKinley Towne Center.
Also encouraging retail and pedestrian growth along South Division are recent streetscape improvements by the Downtown Development Authority.
The result is a corner location in a building where extending the windows by 20 feet along South Division will dramatically change the interior into the type of restaurant Baru envisioned.
“The windows here are fantastic,” Baru said. “They’re the first thing that struck me about this building.
“ When people are dining inside, I want them to feel like they’re almost outside. And people outside can feel what’s going on in the restaurant.”
The interior space most recently was used as a furniture rental showroom, with a 3-foot sunken floor along the front and side.
The interior conversion will include a bar area with seating for 10 to 12. The short staircase will step up to a dining room with seating for about 75, then the ovens — along with what Baru is calling a “pizza counter” — will line the rear of the public space. Food prep areas also will allow diners to watch the process, and there also will be a small, semi-private dining area.
Interior construction is under way as all of the mechanical and plumbing needs for a restaurant space are installed. Drywall is next, while the ovens’ arrival from their California manufacturer was slowed by last week’s winter weather.
“We’re in that period of time when you don’t see a lot happening — but you know a lot is happening,” Baru said.
The ovens represent the heart of the restaurant, dominating both the look and the menu with what Baru calls “big mouths of roaring flames.”
The staff will use hardwoods to fire them, and Baru and his chefs — Chef Arthur Cavaliere and Brendan McCall, chef de cuisine and a veteran of local kitchens — are still fine-tuning the menu, which will locally source many ingredients.
Using open flame to cook pizza results in a unique taste, Baru said, and the rest of the menu has “expanded and gotten a little more ambitious” beyond pizza. Pasta, mussels, and meatballs are examples.
“It’s really a full menu,” Baru said. Pricing should range from about $10 for an individual pizza to $15 for a specialty version.
Hiring should start by the end of the month, and he’s hoping construction will be done in March, allowing a mid-April opening.
The name comes from the Italian word for “hands” or “hand-made,” and an osteria is an Italian tavern.
Baru spent eight years working on the marketing end of restaurants, including for Morimoto of "Iron Chef" fame. Most recently, he was in Philadelphia. He grew up in Ann Arbor, and was ready to move his wife and their toddler back to the city where his parents still live as he realized he was ready to pursue his dream of opening his own establishment.
“This has been an incredible experience to go through,” Baru said. “I’ve opened restaurants before, but I’ve never been so involved in this piece of building it.”