March 22 2018 10:15 AM

Feeling at home with comforting Italian food


HE ATE

By MARK NIXON

They strolled in singly, in pairs, bunches. Hugs all-around. When they assembled there were 20 or more seated, waiting for the person of honor. It was a birthday. It was family.

I have witnessed such scenes countless times at DeLuca’s, and participated in similar family gatherings here for at least a decade. is a family place in the best possible sense of the word.

If there is a restaurant in town that I can call a second home, DeLuca’s is the place. It’s been in the same location on Willow Street since 1960, when it was known as the Willow Bar. I’ve been a semi-regular since the 1980s. I’ve watched anniversaries celebrated, birthdays and, sadly, one death.

By now, I’m sure you are stuffed with my heaping bowl of nostalgia and want to know about the food. Here we go. This is not the best Italian restaurant I’ve visited. There are better ones in Boston or, closer to home, Windsor. There’s a pretty decent one in Detroit’s Eastern Market.

But I lean on Anthony Bourdain’s keen observation that the best cuisine is borne of poverty, necessity. DeLuca’s crafts what I call peasant food into filling, people-pleasing works of art.

My go-to dish is a half-order of spaghettini with tomato-meat sauce ($9.25).

I always order this with meatballs, sausage and mushrooms. The six bucks extra is well worth it.

First off, you have to remember that DeLuca’s portions are huge. I always take half of my half-order home. The pasta is cooked to perfection, tender but not mushy. The meatballs are expertly blended with spices and bread crumbs. The sausage has that glorious fennel aroma and taste. I would change nothing about this dish.

During several visits we ordered or tasted a half-dozen entrees, the house salad and a homemade soup. Here’s a partial rundown:

• The combination plate ($14) of manicotti, cannelloni and meat ravioli created a hearty trio of tastes. The cannelloni was like a crepe bursting with parmesan. This combo dish is ready-made for pastavores (is that a word?).

• The eggplant parmesan ($12.50) exceeded my expectations. Other than in certain Greek dishes, I find eggplant ranges from dull to awful. DeLuca’s take on eggplant excels, no doubt due to zesty tomato sauce and the redolent bite of aged parmesan.

• The meatball soup ($2.90 for a cup) had the same meatballs as my spaghettini dish, burbling about in rich broth. The chunks of zucchini were useless in this soup, but I consider zucchini to be one of nature’s mistakes, so there you go.

• The house salad, which comes with entrees, is somewhat commonplace save for one thing — an excellent housemade Italian dressing. It has the right balance of tang, salt and oil.

DeLuca’s is known for its pizzas. I counted 34 pizza topping options on the menu. The pizzas are thick, laden with cheese and toppings, and an economical way to feed a hungry family. Personally, my pizza tastes have changed. I prefer the thin-crust gourmet pizzas, such as those served at the Cosmos.

Nonetheless, I felt obliged to try a DeLuca’s pizza — its culinary calling card. Normally, I would opt for the meat lover’s pizza, which I’ve tried and liked. I went for something different. The deepdish potato pizza. This $13.60 item is a disaster in a pan. In theory, it had olive oil, bacon, potatoes, broccoli, chicken and onions embedded in thick dough and swaddled in mozzarella cheese. I tasted a bit of bacon and a lot of broccoli. This pizza needs to be rethought or shown the door. To be fair, my wife thought it was good.

There is nothing particularly dazzling about DeLuca’s low-slung exterior, other than its name written in gold script.

What dazzles me is what goes on inside. DeLuca’s is the most democratic of places, where young and old, rich and not-sorich, mingle in a crowded bar then proceed to tables and booths for food, wine and family. A bit like home.

SHE ATE

By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE

Quick, name an independent, locally-owned restaurant where you can walk-in on any given evening and find the place absolutely heaving with people who are waiting to be seated. Golden Harvest doesn’t count — they aren’t open for dinner.

DeLuca’s pizza is the stuff of legend in Lansing, and from what I saw that reputation isn’t in danger of dying out anytime soon.

On our first visit, we met a group of friends for dinner. We started with an assortment of appetizers: meatballs and cheese, bruschetta and mozzarella sticks.

Although it’s been a good 15 years since I’ve had a mozzarella stick, I remembered what to expect, and was anticipating a bland cheese product encased in breading.

Along with two big ol’ mozzarella sticks, I ate my words.

These things were so much better than they had any right being. The cheese tasted like fresh mozzarella, and the breading wasn’t overwhelming.

If those were good, the meatballs were divine. They were enormous, with only three to an order, and that appetizer could have easily served as my meal. They were tender and moist and swam in a pool of melted cheese and tomato sauce, which I considered funneling into my baby’s bottle so he can develop an early appreciation of a properly-salted sauce. I didn’t because he’s only three months old, and I didn’t want anyone reporting me.

I had lasagna for my entrée, and what I’m about to say might be controversial. This lasagna had too much cheese. I didn’t grow up in a house where we ate lasagna, and my experience with the dish has all come during the last handful of years. What I’ve learned is that I like a composed dish. I like my layers of meat, noodle, cheese, and sauce to be distinct pieces of the same whole.

The lasagna at DeLuca’s is a molten hot saucer filled with those same elements, but without a composition to them. The copious amount of cheese and sauce turns the dish into, essentially, a lasagna soup.

Mr. She Ate had a nine-inch meat special pizza. I won’t spend precious column inches debating the merits of DeLuca’s pizza, because you either like it or you don’t. For me, it isn’t pizza, it’s casserole. I find the toppings to be overwhelming and the pie to be too thick. On the other hand, Mr. She Ate lusts after it, talks about it like he’s talking about a unicorn, and couldn’t have been happier to do battle with a pizza that included pepperoni, ham, sausage, ground beef and entire slices of bacon.

On a return visit, I ordered the Fettuccine DeLuca. I added chicken to the dish, which was loaded with mushrooms, mozzarella, and a liberal dose of melted butter.

It was unique and an interesting juxtaposition from all the tomato-based dishes, but it would have been better with one less minute under the broiler and fresh mushrooms.

Mr. She Ate had a meatball sub, which is one of his perpetual favorite dishes and one he doesn’t frequently eat, since the recipe that I use for them is an all-day affair.

He liked that the sub bun was substantial enough to avoid melting under the pressure of the filling. The meatballs were just as delicious in the sandwich as they were on their own.

To be honest, when I have my way I don’t prefer to order Italian food at a restaurant. From my perspective, I can boil water, so I can make pasta at home. Mr. She Ate has perfected the art of chicken Alfredo, and I’d rather choose something that I can’t or won’t make at home when I go to a restaurant. I wouldn’t drive across town for the fettuccini at DeLuca’s, but the meatballs and mozzarella sticks are a different story. Judging by the vast quantity of pizza boxes that were being cradled by people picking up their orders, the lure of the House Special pizza is enough to keep the tables at DeLuca’s overflowing for years to come.

DeLuca’s Restaurant

2006 W Willow St, Lansing, MI 48917

(517) 487-6087 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Monday - Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Friday & Saturday Closed Sunday www.delucaspizza.com