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Illustration of people dining at Palio del Sole, Ann Arbor, MI.

Palio del Sole Reviewed

Big sky

by M.B. Lewis

From the August, 2010 issue

The allure of open-air dining diminishes when that air fills with exhaust blasts of passing trucks and "whatcha eating there?" stares from pedestrians. Add pesky flies to the mix, and the less romantic among us want to move indoors.

Rooftop dining can be a perfect compromise, and Palio del Sole elevates you above those sidewalk annoyances with continental flair. Channeling a rustic Italian trattoria with its flowering plants, stemless wineglasses, and operatic soundtrack, its trellised expanse above the corner of Main and William has for decades been the best sangria-sipping, pasta-slurping, sunset-savoring spot in town.

Just don't expect too much from the tiny rooftop kitchen. Most everything there is southern Italian in name and inspiration, with hearty, tomato-sauced pastas, crusty bread, and fruity olive oil (mint-speckled frozen mojitos and peanut butter pie are among the few exceptions). Don't make the climb if you seek the polenta or risotto served downstairs at Palio--because those trendy, technique-driven offerings remain grounded.

I found meals to savor at Palio Del Sole, and the best of them surprised me. It wasn't the enticingly described fish stew that somehow combined overcooked shellfish and undercooked salmon (although the garlic cheese toast was perfect dipped in the broth). And it wasn't the eggplant parmesan, landscaped into stark buttes of squash towering over slippery pasta. Large cheese and meat tortellini were enjoyably honest, but not unforgettable. For me, Palio del Sole's signature dish is penne pomodoro with grilled chicken. A light char on the chicken breast strips gives the tomato sauce smoky robustness that conjures garden feasts at long tables in sunlit foreign movies. Though other pastas we sampled bordered on overcooked, the penne in this dish arrived perfectly al dente.

For the ideal Palio del Sole rustic meal, start with either of two appealing appetizers. The simple bruschetta has fresh chopped tomatoes blooming with balsamic vinegar and garlic. A tapenade trio ranges from good (olives) through better (red pepper and goat cheese) to best (lemony artichokes). The insalata

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verde
features fresh mixed greens and gorgonzola in olive oil and vinegar--another point for the simple and honest team. The Caesar salad was a little mucky, however, as if it had sat on a warm counter too long. Our smiling servers kept breadbaskets and water glasses full and didn't hover too much, encouraging the festive feeling that develops over the course of a meal in a space like this.

Plenty of good Italian wines are available by the generous glass or bottle, and I would have contentedly topped off my Italian evening sipping limoncello or sambuca--per gusto, as my nonna used to say. But restaurant reviewers must have dessert, and Palio del Sole offers exactly five dolci, all of them grandi--too bad there isn't a sweet little nothing on the tray for overstuffed patrons. Oh well. The popular peanut butter pie is like a cool fluffy candy bar, and the panna cotta vanilla cream mold is bejeweled in berries and bright swirls of fruit sauce. The cream in our cannoli was an unattractive yellow, and runnier than expected. Carrot cake was fine, but tiramisu drew mixed reviews: I thought it too bland for its richness, but friends quickly polished off the half-brick square.

We had lovely evenings atop Palio del Sole, but I wish a few details were more closely managed. The pesto recipe cries for an intervention--it barely shows up for work. The plating of entrees could be more inspired, particularly in the pairing of two sausages--a fine-tasting but boiled-looking fennel with a bright red pepper-flaked link. I doubt the forlorn appearance of this scarlet-and-gray meat combo would appeal even to Buckeye fans. And it's hard to decide which misstep in an otherwise gracious decor was most annoying: dreary fake plants amid the real ones or stock block-M flags busting the Italian mood.

As evenings grow shorter, you might not be so picky. But with Jolly Pumpkin's rooftop garden down the street now providing competition (and trendier fare), Palio del Sole may have to try harder to keep its elevated place among open-air diners. It's no longer the only party in the downtown sky.

Palio del Sole
347 S. Main
930-6156


Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m. Open Fri. & Sat. only in Sept. and Oct., weather permitting.

Appetizers $6.95-$7.95, salads $4.95-$11.95, dinner entrees $12.95-$19.95, desserts $5.95

No wheelchair access.    (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2010.]

 

 
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