When summer hits, many in Ann Arbor flock to the waters of the Pinckney area’s chain of lakes. Many, in fact, own trailers, cottages, or lots along those shores. I initially thought it odd–unimaginative, perhaps–that anyone would choose a vacation spot only twenty or thirty miles from home. Odd, that is, until I realized those folks are sitting on their decks or in their boats, drinks in hand, less than an hour after leaving work on Friday evening. At those moments, the collective sigh of bliss must be audible all the way back to Ann Arbor.
As much as grilling and barbecuing are a part of lake culture, one doesn’t always want to have to cook. And it’s fun to join the neighbors–first- or second-home ones–on an evening out. For decades, the Zukey Lake Tavern has been a raucous, bustling possibility, but if one’s looking for a quieter, more intimate venue, La Vita Bistro in downtown Pinckney, directly off Main Street, might be a better choice. Opened in January 2011 by Joe and Judi deKroub and run by their son Tony, the restaurant features pizza and Italian specialties. A neighborhood place with some of the trappings–and prices–of fine dining, it sometimes left me expecting more than I got. But during my summer visits, happy regulars jostled at the front stand for a seat inside or at one of the sidewalk tables.
Perhaps I should have said “small” rather than “intimate.” Alice-in-Wonderland booths big enough to swallow six to eight adults overwhelm the diminutive dining room, intruding into the front window space and crowding the adjacent tables. Squeezed into the far end of the room sits an alcove bar stuffed with stools and counters. Furnishings are a hybrid mix of diner and fine dining fixtures–vinyl and Formica graced with lovely glassware and stylish white dishes. The waitstaff follows a similar pattern–knowledgeable and efficient, but often overly folksy and nonchalant.
The food is as mixed up as the decor. Well-imagined and nicely rendered dishes sit side-by-side with poorly done Italian-American classics and incoherent combinations like grilled salmon with goat cheese polenta and sumac lime aioli.
Hitting the high notes were rich–very rich–baked stuffed clams smothered with shrimp, crab, and bacon in a bechamel sauce; marinated beef fillet grilled rare; and seafood palomino, perfectly cooked shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms in a light, sherry-tinged sauce over fettuccine. The house salads that come with entrees were fresh and crisp, and one evening’s corn chowder tasted just fine. We also liked the Caprina puffs–pate a choux cups filled with a sun-dried tomato and goat cheese mixture and garnished with pesto and crispy prosciutto–even though the French pastry seemed an odd vehicle for the other ingredients. A pesto pizza, ordered without chicken as a shared appetizer, came generously loaded with sweet onions and two cheeses. And veal saltimbocca pleased a friend, though I found it rather tough.
Another evening the simple omission of salt sabotaged two meals–shrimp scampi over angel hair pasta and a parmesan-crusted ribeye with soupy garlic mashed potatoes. Cooking pasta and potatoes–and seafood and meat, for that matter–without salt pretty much renders them tasteless, and sprinkling on generous amounts at the table never really fixes the initial misstep. Moreover, the crust on the ribeye was uninspired, less a cheesy coating than a goopy white gravy. Unlike the other generously proportioned dishes, a friend’s lobster ravioli was skimpy, the pasta undercooked. My eggplant Parmigiana featured nearly raw eggplant–a vegetable I never favor undercooked–but the marinara sauce and cheeses, scraped from the eggplant and mixed with the accompanying pasta, made a satisfying dinner.
That evening’s appetizers–a tired antipasto of sliced meats and cheese hunks forlornly garnished with a roasted pepper or two, and tomato-basil soup so thick, chunky, and dry we would have sworn it was mistakenly scooped from a vat of pasta sauce–had not primed us for a great meal. But a lovely bottle of red wine suggested as an alternative to the one we ordered–and at the price of the original–nicely compensated. And dessert–a competent tiramisu and a tart, refreshing lemon spumoni–finished the evening in fine form.
La Vita Bistro works hard to fulfill its double mission–a neighborhood place for a tasty weeknight dinner and a destination spot for those intent on a brief respite from the everyday. Sometimes it succeeds quite well, sometimes it doesn’t, but, hey, it’s far enough away from Ann Arbor to be a vacation, and sometimes that’s exactly what one needs.
La Vita Bistro
102 S. Howell St., Pinckney
Tues.-Thurs. 4-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.
Appetizers, salads, and soups $3-$15, pizzas $10-$11, entrees $11-$28. Lunch $3-$12.
Wheelchair accessible, but dining room is crowded