By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
Detroit is not lacking in classic Italian cuisine. There’s Roma Café, dishing up traditional Italian since the late 19th century in the Motor City, and Mario’s, an old-school Italian joint right down to the vegetable and relish tray served upon sitting down at the table, just to name a couple of institutions. But Luciano DelSignore has taken the cuisine to new heights with his much-lauded white-tablecloth restaurant Bacco and his wood-fired pizza concept Bigalora. When he first opened Bacco in suburban Detroit more than 10 years ago, the culinary scene was vastly different from the current restaurant boom. Then came the recession, which forced many restaurants to close.
These days, Detroit is seeing highly anticipated eateries opening their doors on a regular basis. But through it all, Bacco has endured, cultivating a loyal clientele who made it a destination for business meetings and special occasions alike. Its well-executed and imaginative Italian food has been recognized with several awards, including “Restaurant of the Year” honors from the Detroit Free Press, Top Table from Gourmet magazine, and “America’s Top Restaurant” from Zagat, to name a few. A former James Beard semifinalist, DelSignore is one of the area’s most celebrated chefs who is also a successful restaurateur.
How It All Started
It all began in DelSignore’s family restaurant, Fonte d’Amore in Livonia, MI. Like many chefs, he started as a busboy and dishwasher, then worked his way up the food chain. He started waiting tables before making his way into the kitchen at age 15. As a teen, DelSignore, a first-generation Italian American with strong ties to the Italian region of Abruzzo (east of Rome), was developing his own signature dishes that were simple yet sophisticated. This type of cooking would eventually typify his culinary style. During these early years of cooking classic, true Italian fare, he honed his craft.
After graduating high school, he headed to the homeland of Italy where he spent six months working in restaurants. These experiences would shape his culinary point of view. A meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant is a defining moment in his fledgling culinary career, he says, a moment that stands out to him as one that would pave his culinary path.
After he came back to the States, he continued to work at his family’s restaurant, and after a few years, he asked his father to transform the trattoria into fine dining. The revamped restaurant drew patrons from around the area and it wasn’t long before DelSignore had plans to open his own restaurant. In 2002, Bacco was born.
Making a Mark in Michigan
Bacco would fit in a larger market like New York with its contemporary décor and simple yet elegant dishes that highlight premium ingredients, but DelSignore is loyal to Michigan where he was born and raised. The loyalty to the Great Lakes State shows in his food, which utilizes organic meat, poultry, and fresh produce (with some vegetables coming from the onsite garden during the summer) procured from local farms. Bacco also uses locally made artisanal products such as McClary Bros. Drinking Vinegars and spirits from Two James distillery. Reflecting his own growing tastes, the food at Bacco shows how DelSignore over the years has embraced lighter fare with healthier ingredients.
DelSignore notes a big change in metro Detroit’s food scene is the rise of farming culture and local producers who have made Detroit more of a “foodie destination.” The local chef community is a closely knit one, and they have supported the demand for local products, he says.
In a town known for the square pan pizza, DelSignore rolled out the Bigalora concept, which focuses on Neapolitan style wood-fired pizza, a few years ago. Like Bacco, Bigalora’s philosophy is to use the freshest quality ingredients and showcase fresh and local products from small purveyors and producers raising sustainable foods. The hallmark of these pizzas is the all-natural “biga,” a yeast starter that yields a chewy, light interior and a slightly charred crust cooked at 900 degrees in traditional wood-fired ovens imported from Italy.
As for plans for expansion, the seasoned chef doesn’t foresee opening Bacco the sequel anytime soon because a restaurant of that caliber demands a lot of his time and he isn’t willing to compromise quality by spreading himself too thin. His Bigalora concept, however, has the potential to grow, he says. Currently there are three Bigalora locations in metro Detroit, plus a site at Detroit Metropolitan Airport as well as a food truck.
In between opening and running successful restaurants, he also serves as a mentor to the next generation of top chefs in metro Detroit. Earlier this year at Bacco, he hosted chefs Marc Bogoff of the popular food truck and supper club Stockyard and James Rigato of The Root and Mabel Gray. He collaborated with Bogoff on the menu while Rigato stepped in as sommelier.
His inclination to support younger chefs also extends to his philosophy on building his team in the back of the house. In the wake of the current staffing challenges hitting kitchens across the country, DelSignore says the key is that “you have to care about your employees, train your sous chefs, and promote from within.”
The secret to his restaurateur success? Putting in more work, more hours, and more time, he says. And he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.