Traveling through Italy as a young adult, I heard many opinions about American cultural influences. None was more passionate than a Tuscan lodging manager’s rejection of “fast food.” I can still hear how he hissed the words, as if even the sound disgusted him. Deploring our trend toward generic meals quickly inhaled, he lauded his country’s tradition of labor-intensive dishes ceremoniously served in great quantities for elbow-to-elbow consumption. Like in the Godfather movies, between massacres.

That conversation came back to mind during my first visit to Cantoro Italian Market and Trattoria in Northville Twp., a sprawling temple to cucina tradizionale. Nowhere around here will you find a greater collection of food from across Italy (packaged and prepared) than in this three-year-old enterprise. So much about the place is big: overflowing shelves on the Italian market side, with aisle after aisle devoted to pastas, tomato products, meats, cheeses, olive oils, confections, and spirits. The trattoria, which occupies a few rooms in the corner of the store, is all about big shareable plates–and the big amount of time it takes to work through the menu in the manner for which it is designed.

First up are antipasto and starters, followed by zuppe (soup), insalate (salads), and primi (first plates of mostly pastas but with a risotto or two thrown in for good measure). Then come the secondi, main courses of meat or fish. The menu also lists more than a dozen pizza combos, but I found the crust a bit too doughy on a basic spinach-and-cheese I tried and couldn’t get excited about trying more.

There are about twenty varieties of house-made gelato available for dessert–some of them a bit exotic, like coconut and whiskey, both of which tasted truly of the flavors their names suggest. Stracciatella, on the other hand, was lighter on the frozen stripes of melted chocolate than this Italian version of chocolate chip gelato often is. But it was still tasty, and the generous serving was topped with a tall, rolled-up cookie. And then everyone gets a wrapped chocolate with the check.

I tried more than a dozen menu items in two visits and found it hard to settle on just a few favorites. For starters, I liked both preparations of calamari. Although batter-fried tubes and tentacles can be found on many menus, I liked how Cantoro dressed theirs up peperonata style with chunks of peppers in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Even more alluring was the alla griglia preparation–grilling with lemon slices gives the squid a lighter finish that readies the palate for additional courses. At my brother-in-law’s suggestion, we put the grilled lemon slices on our plates and “dipped” each forkful into it. Then we sopped up all the smoky citrusy juices with bread from a bottomless basket.

I highly recommend two differently delicious pasta dishes. Penne alla vodka had a rich, peppery tomato cream sauce, clotted slightly by alcohol but tasting more of its salty bits of pancetta; the sunset orange color was fantastic. Strozzapretti alla Barese featured rapini greens sauteed to mellowed bitterness complementing crumbles of seasoned pork sausage atop a mountain of fresh, house-made pasta twirls. Already delicious, both pastas were enhanced by our attentive server’s willingness to grind fresh parmesan until we cried mercy.

Among the main courses, tender veal scaloppini came with super-flavorful mixed mushrooms topping an exquisite wedge of silken polenta: soft and creamy like custard inside and browned to a crispy edge all around. “Gorgonzola ribeye” was a rare menu entree not listed in Italian (good translations are provided), and the sixteen-ounce–yes, one-pound–slab of meat almost hung over the plate. It was good, but at $39 not as good a value as the veal at $28 or the fresh and tasty branzino (sea bass) at $34.

Considering the size of the portions and sometimes lofty costs (like the $46 lamb chops), Cantoro could be more forthcoming about surcharges like the unexpected $4 charge for split plates that showed up on our bill (it disappeared when we questioned it). Likewise, you’ll have to ask if you want to know the prices for desserts, after-dinner coffee drinks, and even customizing ingredients on your pizza. That seems authentically Italian, too–as if the answers are to be decided by what you’ve spent so far, whom you asked, and how that person is feeling at the moment. Even the sprawling market side of the business goes a bit light on price labeling. Again, I can almost hear my opinionated Tuscan pal from decades ago. He would have said something along the lines of: “You got so many questions! Why? Either you want it, or you don’t want it …”

Evening diners here can spend hours at the table before they rise–the “slow food” movement was born in Italy, after all. But Cantoro’s version is less about heirloom tomatoes than family recipes. The words “organic, vegetarian, gluten free” don’t appear on the menu. Yet “fresh” does repeatedly, describing tomato sauce, mozzarella, garlic (the holy trinity of Italian food), as well as “house-made” for squid ink linguine and many other pastas, sausage, pesto, gelato …

Definitely call ahead for a dinner reservation–when people are settling in for this much food and wine from the award-winning cellars, there’s not a lot of turnover. Or go at lunch, for less of an investment of time and money.

If it’s crazy noisy when you walk in, try asking for a quiet table. The store’s high ceilings give sound a place to rise and seem to afford some serene nooks. Italian photos on the walls, white linen, and a fussy guy in kitchen whites standing guard at the counter between the kitchen and the dining room to inspect the plates passing through–it all adds up to an experience to savor.

Cantoro Trattoria

15550 N. Haggerty Rd.

Northville Twp.


Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Lunch: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Soup, starters, and salads $7-$19; pasta and pizza $12-$39; main courses $21-$46; desserts $4 and up.

Wheelchair friendly.