Bigalora, the third link in a small chain of restaurants begun by Luciano DelSignore in Southfield, opened last autumn in the new Arbor Hills Crossing shopping center. Its location, in the back of the complex, offers a forested retreat in the midst of Washtenaw Avenue’s strip-mall jungle. A long wall of windows overlooks a secluded patio and a shallow, tree-lined ravine cradling Malletts Creek. I can’t imagine that patio will ever be empty during summer months.
A bar and open kitchen sit opposite those windows, with a mix of tables for small parties and communal seating between. Tucked beneath the high ceiling at back, a mezzanine offers a bit of seclusion. The ambience is chic, sleek, contemporary. (I love the clear acrylic wingback chairs near the entrance.) At lunch and dinner, music plays loudly, and repeated queries–“what?!?”–punctuate most conversations.
Bigalora’s specialties–pizza, pasta, and small plates–aren’t new to Ann Arbor. So how does DelSignore differentiate his food from the competition’s? The waitstaff eagerly describes the pizza crust, made with a proprietary fermented, non-yeast starter, or biga. “Ninety seconds at 900 degrees” goes the mantra, and the pizzas slide in and out of the wood-burning ovens in a flash. DelSignore also roasts vegetables, chicken wings, meat, fish, and even peanuts and olives in his “wood-fired cucina.” Salads, pastas, cheese and salumi, and a few fried items round out the offerings.
With a menu so long, I couldn’t sample everything, even with help from my friends and family. But we made a brave start, particularly with the small plates. I’ve never understood the pairing of calamari with marinara sauce, so we skipped it in favor of the risotto balls–delicious cheesy, creamy saffron-tinged interiors with crunchy exteriors–and potato croquettes–another crunchy crust enveloping a bland patty. Fried shishito peppers had a nice vegetal flavor, but the french fries, allegedly made Tuscan with sprinklings of garlic, rosemary, and grana padano cheese, seemed to have been dusted clean on their way out of the kitchen. Meatballs, their texture lightened by breadcrumbs, also seemed light on flavor, and the acidic marinara sauce didn’t add much of a boost. Those roasted olives and peanuts were both fine, as were the wood-fired carrots, garnished with more peanuts, goat cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
Another evening we began with salads, which thoughtfully come in small and large sizes. Roasted beets on arugula sparked our appetites with bits of olive pesto, walnuts, and goat cheese. A wholesome medley of lentils, quinoa, farro, chickpeas, and vegetables was wonderfully cooked and presented but tasted as if it had come to the table undressed. Requests for lemon wedges and olive oil brought the necessary additions.
We tried Bigalora’s pizzas on three different visits. The choices are red (with tomato sauce) or white (without sauce). Whatever the type, the crust was always flavorful, lightly tangy. Though an abundant garnish of arugula and pomegranate salad overwhelmed a special pie with shredded duck confit, the toppings also were generally good, particularly a version with zesty sausage, hot peppers, and roasted onions. But on our first two tries, the brief moment in the blazing-hot oven never seemed to cook the pizza crusts through, and their centers remained limp, even soggy. We couldn’t pick up a triangle without the toppings sliding onto the table.
But one evening, with Joan Jett blasting in the background–“I love rock and roll, put another dime in the jukebox, baby”–we opted to drop another coin, and this time the pizza sang. The crusts on our three pizzas were crispy on the bottom, chewy at their hearts and along their edges. Toppings varied from brussels sprouts (tasty), shrimp with arugula pesto (also tasty despite undercooked crustaceans), and clams (in their shell, a bit of a surprise to our friend when he bit down, but that may have been due to excellent cocktails). I’ve no idea what was different that night–the cook, the oven’s temperature, the batch of dough–but I can’t help thinking that a bit more time in a cooler oven would do well by Bigalora’s pizzas.
Bigalora offers the same menu at lunch, but at midday your pizza or pasta comes with a small salad or bowl of soup along with a soft drink–more food, same cost, a real bargain. I took my mother to lunch one day, and she enthusiastically enjoyed her garden salad and duck prosciutto pizza (meat cured in house)–with enough left for the next day’s lunch too. I opted for hearty minestrone and wonderfully rich fontina-stuffed gnocchi. Normally the gnocchi comes with marinara sauce, but other options are available. When I asked about one, the waitress didn’t know what it was. Palomino sauce, I discovered once she served it, is essentially a tomato cream sauce. She didn’t know many answers to our questions, nor did our waiter the first evening we visited. Beyond that time-and-temperature mantra, Bigalora’s staff seems remarkably untutored, though usually friendly.
We finished our lunch with a hefty portion of a mediocre tiramisu. Other sweets I tried, including a chocolate-and-nut parfait and frittelle–fried dough with fudge sauce and strawberry compote–were equally enormous but more appealing.
Bigalora’s concept, of course, is quite similar to Mani Osteria’s. While Mani’s menu intrigues, with food that excites the mind and tongue and with deft, careful cooking, Bigalora plays it safer. Bunting instead of swinging for the bleachers, it scores far fewer hits. Though Bigalora’s prices are lower and their portions more generous, in terms of interest and execution I find myself rooting for the home team.
That doesn’t mean, though, that once the summer sun comes out, I won’t be vying for one of Bigalora’s patio tables. Almost no place will beat a Negroni, a sausage pizza, and some roasted vegetables in the shade of that forested retreat.
3050 Washtenaw Avenue (Arbor Hills Crossing)
Small plates and salads $5-$16, pizzas and pastas $9.50-$17
Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.