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By MARK NIXON
Troppo is one of those if-the-walls-could-talk places. A cocktail onion toss from the state Capitol, Troppo practically screams “Important People Hang Here!”
To be sure, during our recent visits we spied several important-looking men in suits huddled at a wrap around bar, probably hatching plans to ensure gerrymandering be a constitutional right.
What surprised me were the number of folks who looked like they had just auditioned for Redneck Roadshow. Like me, for instance.
I immediately felt welcomed; me in my tennis shoes, wrinkle-free travel pants and an 11-year-old fleece jacket. I warmed to Troppo when our server handed us menus. Even though Troppo means “too much” in Italian — surely to brace the customer for an outrageous bill — I was impressed to see several appetizers are half-off from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. On Friday, the same goes for a pizza.
Let’s be clear. Some appetizers and entrees are not for the strictly budget-minded. Our lamb chop appetizer was $15 (and was delicious, by the way). On a subsequent trip, my steak clocked in at $30.
During that first visit, we shared lamb chops, a cup of butternut squash soup, a small Caesar salad, crispy ravioli and a personal-sized pizza, plus cocktails and a carafe of chardonnay. The bill came to less than $57. I felt like I had won the Restaurant Powerball.
Troppo may not boast cutting edge cuisine, but it gets many things right. The Formagio pizza was simple, which is what a good pizza should be; A thin crust, a generous smear of tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella and baked quickly in a very hot oven until the crust and cheese begin to bubble. The pizza was just $6. Chaching.
Also high marks for the Caesar salad (with anchovies) for only $5. The parmesan-to-olive oil ratio was spot-on. I would have gladly paid more for this side salad.
The aforementioned center-cut steak was 12 ounces, blackened with a peppercorn rub and lightly covered with a bourbon cream sauce. Frankly, the sauce didn’t do much for me one way or the other. But the steak itself, ordered rare, was perfectly prepared — hot on the inside, warm within. There are so many ways to ruin a steak, and so I give credit to any kitchen that can avoid the pitfalls and deliver a first-rate steak.
Before the entree I ordered tomato bisque ($3), which came with a wedge of toast and a dab of ricotta. Behold! — a glimpse of summer, redolent with the smell and taste of fresh tomatoes. This is one recipe I’d gladly replicate in the dead of winter.
Judy’s pasta carbonara $18 was very good. The pasta was al dente as preferred. For dessert we shared a lemon cream cake ($9). We were not disappointed, though I think they could have kicked up the lemony flavor with some lemon zest.
I have mostly good things to say about Troppo. It is airy and spacious, with numerous windows to watch downtown Lansing go about its business. The service is attentive without getting too gushy.
Looking out over the intersection of Michigan and Washington Avenues, I’m reminded of a quote from Mark Twain when he once visited Lansing. Those were in the pre-pavement days when horses, manure and mud were integral to the downtown. A proud city official looked across Washington Avenue and said: “Mr. Twain, have you ever seen a street so wide?” Twain replied: “No, nor one so deep.” Troppo does a fine job of celebrating history. On the north wall is an homage to superstars of our past, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Henry Fonda.
Even better is a home-grown homage that is worth a trip to the restroom.
The corridor on the way to the loo is a paean to downtown Lan-sing’s past. Photos of those glory days are on full display; I believe one is of Ransom E. Olds steering his open-air, curveddashed Oldsmobile.
All such positives aside, I do have one bone to pick with Troppo. I noticed on its website (and later on my bills) that Troppo charges a fee for credit card payments. I appreciate them being up front with potential customers, but … really? This the age of plastic. Who carries a wad of cash around these days?
A high-end place like this has to charge extra for me using my debit card? In my case, it was a 2.8 percent surcharge.
That’s a bit much in my book. Or as they say in Italian … troppo.
Back from the dead
By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
For several years, I had a suspicion that Troppo was getting away with the perfect crime. They have a location that is ideal for the masses of government workers, legislators and lobbyists who spend most of their time downtown, a beautiful building, a well-stocked bar and ample event space.
The only problem?
The food wasn’t very good.
After enduring several disappointing meals, I took a long, multi-year hiatus from Troppo. When Mr. She Ate and I returned for lunch recently, it was with a large serving of hesitation.
When we left after our meal, it was with hat in hand. The food at Troppo has improved by leaps and bounds and while they’re not going to win any awards for creativity, I won’t turn up my nose at properly seasoned, properly prepared classic dishes.
I started with a bowl of minestrone soup, and what struck me the most was the structural integrity of both the vegetables and the pasta. Nothing was mushy, the fatal flaw of so many other well-intentioned minestrones. My cloud of suspicion started to dissipate.
I moved on to a Forager salad, because Brussels sprouts and kale are two of my Kryptonite ingredients and this salad had both. Warm sautéed Brussels sprouts are tossed with lots of shredded kale, chopped roasted sweet potato, orzo, bacon, blue cheese crumbles and a vanilla cider dressing. Again, the vegetables were perfectly tender-crisp and the kale made me feel like I could justify eating a cheeseburger for dinner. I don’t do sports, but I call that a home run.
Mr. She Ate sacrificed himself and ordered the margherita pizza. I say “sacrificed himself ” in jest, because Mr. She Ate would gladly construct a meal plan that included pizza for every meal and snack in his life if he could. This one came on a steamy, pillowy dough, loaded with lots of cheese, basil ribbons, and just enough of a balsamic glaze to make your mouth water. One of my favorite things about my dude is that he always gives me my favorite bite off of his slices of pizza — the first one, right at the point of the triangle. Who says romance is dead?
We made a return visit for dinner recently and took our time constructing our order. I like to work in stages, focusing on one thing that I know that I want to order and then selecting a complementary appetizer or entrée. I knew that I wanted to order salmon for my entrée, and Mr. She Ate eventually settled on linguine carbonara.
So, although the crispy ravioli caught my eye on the appetizer menu, I didn’t want my husband to fall into a carb-assisted sleep in the middle of the play we were headed to. We chose the calamari instead, and I was happy to be presented with a plate of long strips of calamari instead of the little rings. This was given the sweet and sour treatment with a mango salsa and topped with crispy rice noodles. The texture and the flavor was on point.
My salmon came on top of mashed potatoes and asparagus, and was topped with a scoop of herbed butter. I love salmon and eat it frequently but I had never paid much attention to the texture of my fish.
This piece was seared to a perfect crisp and the interior was moist and juicy. I alternated bites of the crisp fish with nibbles of a dinner roll soaked in butter as we watched the restaurant fill with everyone from young couples on dinner dates to multi-generational groups of families who wanted to watch the MSU basketball game on the strategically-placed television.
Mr. She Ate dove head-first into indulgence with the carbonara. Noodles and bacon tossed with egg, cream, and cheese- there’s not much more to carbonara than technique and this version had been transformed into something that nearly melted in your mouth.
My challenge to Troppo: take up the mantle of Clara’s and start a Sunday brunch buffet. So many of my favorite restaurants are closed on Sunday and sometimes I need both a savory and a sweet option without having to commit wholeheartedly to one or the other. A plate laden with crispy roasted bacon, stuffed French toast, and a side of oatmeal with fruit and nut butter?
If you gave me a latte, I would curl up in front of the oversized fire place and never leave. Troppo is back from the dead and I’d love to see that brunch as part of Act II.
111 E. Michigan Avenue Lansing, MI 48933 (517) 371-4000 Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday 4 p.m. to Midnight