I don’t think any resident would say that Ann Arbor suffers from a dearth of restaurants, but how many really please on all levels? The number is small, but with the opening of Mani Osteria, it has grown. This is not to say that the newcomer at the corner of Liberty and Division has achieved perfection, but the list of accolades is long.
In Italy, an osteria is a casual place serving wine and simple food, often local specialties, and Mani fits much of this definition. Pizzas, baked in wood-fired ovens, dominate the menu, but appetizers and house-made pastas are also plentiful. The food is fresh, innovative but recognizable, and thoughtfully and carefully prepared. Although some dishes were more impressive than others, we did not regret a single order.
Let’s start with the pizzas. The crust, chewy and lightly charred on the bottom, is so flavorful we rarely left the edges uneaten. I prefer a crispier crust myself, but some of my companions found it perfect. We all agreed about the toppings: every pizza we tried was absolutely delicious, from a zesty octopus-and-arugula special to a spicy polpette (meatball)-and-ricotta, from an exceptionally good pepperoni to Mani’s house-made sausage and peppers, to an elegant tartufo, topped with mushrooms, black truffles, Taleggio cheese, and a baked egg. The quantity of the toppings is generous without overwhelming the crust, and at 12 inches, the pizzas are big enough for a dinner or for an appetizer to share with others.
Appetizers and salads occupy half the menu, and though we didn’t try them all, we made good inroads. The meatballs on the pizza are also available as an antipasto, so one evening we shared these moist, flavorful orbs on a bed of slightly chunky tomato sauce along with a special–a fried zucchini blossom stuffed with shrimp and ricotta, a light yet luscious choice. Another evening we found the pickled tomatoes surprisingly tasty–and cunningly presented in a small canning jar paired with toasts and ramekins of ricotta and tapenade. The antipasto of lemony grilled octopus tossed with celery and arugula was not quite as phenomenal as the octopus pizza, but still delicious; and Mani’s calamari, drizzled with lemon aioli and resting in a pool of tomato broth, was a nice rendition of the ubiquitous fried seafood.
Anyone who appreciates rich, meaty flavor and crispy fat will enjoy the pork belly, paired here with a jammy sweet-tart apricot marmellata. We tried two of the three crudo (raw meat or fish) appetizers, and found the standard beef carpaccio a better choice than the rather plain and unexceptional tuna with salsa verde. A prosciutto and fig salad featured Gorgonzola, overdressed spinach, and dried rather than fresh figs, but was still far superior to other places’ “Michigan” cliche of dried cherries, blue cheese, and nuts. The real knockout salad was a shingled construction of beets and fennel, wonderfully intermingled with grapefruit, ricotta salata, and pistachios.
Mani lists only a few entrees, simple standards like rib eye steak and roasted chicken. None of my guests was interested, so we skipped them entirely to try more pizzas, appetizers, salads, and pastas.
Both pastas and sauces are made in house, and all are thoughtfully and carefully prepared. They come in small and large portions, and one night two of us each ordered two different small portions to maximize our sampling options. Linguine with bay scallops featured tender pasta and sweet, moist, lemony scallops–fabulous. Cannelloni, stuffed with ricotta and summer squash and served on a bed of tomato sauce, was prosaic but good. Gnocchi–ricotta rather than potato–were slices from rolled cylinders. Though not Silvio’s soft, tender pillows, Mani’s gnocchi were tasty, and the duck ragu topping them was outstandingly rich and meaty. I loved the concept behind Mani’s tagliatelle carbonara–a softly poached egg atop a bowl of noodles, cheese, and sauteed trumpet mushrooms. Once broken open, the egg combines with the other ingredients, and the result should be a luxuriously rich sauce; unfortunately, the reality was a pile of congealed pasta topped with bits of egg, pancetta, and mushrooms–tasty but stiff. This dish, I think, forgives no pause between execution and consumption.
Another night we ordered the larger versions of the gnocchi, finding them again delicious, and of the papparadelle Bolognese–like the cannelloni, prosaic but good. That said, how many places in town can you say have an array of consistently good and sometimes fabulous pastas–or, for that matter, any other type of dish?
As good as the food was, what really impressed me was Mani’s attention to detail–not just in the menu, but in the interesting and well-priced wine and cocktail menu, in the training, knowledge, and cordiality of the entire staff, and in the friendly, warm presence of owner Adam Baru. Throughout our visits to Mani, we were made to feel special, to feel welcome. It is certainly the most hospitable restaurant to lately grace the Ann Arbor scene and clearly one that aspires to become a neighborhood fixture, a constant on every Ann Arborite’s dining horizon.
So what are the restaurant’s drawbacks? It’s loud when full, making conversation awkward. (The renovation of the used-furniture shop is attractive, but there are a lot of hard surfaces.) The biggest concern, however, is the value question–the ratio of portion size to price charged. Pizzas, though not inexpensive, are so imaginative and of such high quality that we didn’t begrudge their prices. Appetizers and salads, though, ranged from good to poor value. Pickled tomatoes one can share, but the pork belly, a trendy but still relatively inexpensive cut, is ridiculously priced at $10 for four bites, as is the tuna crudo at $12. The size of the prosciutto and fig salad is standard, though a bit costly, but the $10 price on the tiny beet and fennel salad cannot be justified. I’ve heard complaints about the sizes and prices of the pastas, but I regard them as I do the pizzas. A hungry teenage boy, however, would probably not be satisfied by even the large bowl of pappardelle bolognese. Desserts seem a bit pricey, though if the white peach gelato is available, don’t fail to order it. (Avoid the cannoli, which are rather chalky and unappealing.) Mani does offer the refreshing option of inexpensive house wines.
Against those few shortcomings, there is much to love about Mani Osteria. Go and you’ll discover it for yourself; you’ll have a warm welcome, a good time, and a wonderful meal.
Mani Osteria and Bar
341 E. Liberty, 769-6700
Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-10 p.m. Closed Mon.
Antipasti and salads $5-$14, pizzas $12-$17, pastas $12-$21, entrees $17-$28, desserts $5-$6.
Accessibility: There’s a lift for wheelchairs and those unable to climb the few steps into the dining area. The main restrooms are below stairs, but there is an accessible restroom off the dining area.