Walking down the short flight of stairs into Michelangelo Ristorante, you’re never quite sure what you’re getting yourself into. The place could be mobbed or it could be a morgue. There’s no way to tell from the outside. So, the restaurant might be rocking with customers sharing wine and antipasti, as on a recent Saturday night. Or it might be quiet, sedate and ideal for an intimate meal, like at lunch not long ago. Be prepared to go with the flow.
On the other hand, there’s one aspect of Michelangelo that is the same day in and day out: the food. It never changes. I don’t mean the food never changes as in, the menu doesn’t evolve. I mean the quality of the food at Michelangelo never seems to change: it’s exceptional. That’s not bad for a restaurant that’s been around a decade now, not counting its prehistory. Too many restaurants grow old and stale in that time span.
Back in 1994'this is the Michelangelo prehistory I mentioned'I reviewed a restaurant in Heber called Il Giardino. It was a lovely home-style Italian restaurant located in an old brick house, owned and operated by Antonio Ruspoli. The Italian chef in the kitchen who produced such marvelous fare back then was a guy named Paulo Celeste. In 1995, after Heber’s Il Giardino closed, Ruspoli went on to open the now-defunct Salt Lake City version of Il Giardino. Meanwhile, Chef Celeste teamed up with childhood friend Marco Gabrielli to create Michelangelo Ristorante in Sugar House. Now, 10 years later, Celeste and Gabrielli have returned to Italy, and Michelangelo is owned by Scott Ashley, who is also the restaurant’s executive chef.
Log onto the restaurant’s Website at www.michelangeloristorante.com and you’ll find a lot of information about original owners Celeste and Gabrielli, but no mention of Scott Ashley. Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to updating the site yet. But I’m inclined to think that perhaps the “oversight” is intentional: Ashley might be concerned that if the secret got out that there’s an American cooking in the kitchen, it might hurt business. It shouldn’t. Because Ashley can cook Italian food with the best of them. I don’t think the cuisine at Michelangelo has ever been better.
Nor has the ambience at Michelangelo ever been better. Ashley made some minor changes in dÃ©cor when he took over, including moving tables and chairs around to create better traffic flow. In general, the restaurant looks a little less cluttered now and a little more intimate, thanks in part to tall white candles that impart a lovely glow to each table. The Mediterranean color scheme and crisp white tablecloths atop sea-blue ones create casual yet elegant eye appeal. Still, I don’t go to Michelangelo for the dÃ©cor, nor even for the service, which is usually very good. I go to Michelangelo for the wonderful homemade pasta dishes, the terrific antipasti and the marvelous fish, meat and chicken entrees.
Even though I’m all for romance, I think the best way to experience Michelangelo’s is with a crowd. The portions are generous, and “team” dining will allow you to sample more dishes than two people could order without seeming gluttonous. Classic starters like a Caprese salad of ripe tomatoes, Italian buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil ($10) or Italian prosciutto with cantaloupe melon ($12) are always good ideas. But if pinned down to choose a favorite from Michelangelo’s antipasti menu, I’d call a tie between “bresaola e arugola” ($10) and “carpaccio di carne” ($12.50). These are essentially the same dish, with the former made from thinly sliced Italian dried beef called bresaola and the latter made from equally thin-shaved slices of filet mignon. The bresaola is cured; the beef filet is raw. Both are topped very simply with fresh arugula leaves, a light lemon-oil dressing, and slices of Parmesan so thin you can see through them. They are both flawless: Take your pick.
I don’t normally lean toward pasta dishes in Italian restaurants, since they’re too often only an afterthought. Even in Italy, pasta isn’t usually the main attraction. But the homemade pasta from Ashley’s kitchen is as good as I’ve had in this country. I’ve written in City Weekly’s Best of Utah about his remarkable gnocchi, which land in the sweet spot right between typical potato gnocchi “bombs” that are too dense and heavy, and feather light gnocchi that is too insubstantial. Ashley hits a perfect bull’s-eye with his gnocchi every night, and I highly recommend trying it with his rich and creamy Gorgonzola sauce ($12.50).
But as much as I enjoy the gnocchi at Michelangelo, it’s Ashley’s ability to make textbook fresh spaghetti that really knocks my socks off. Most Italian restaurants'including most in Italy'don’t even bother making the thinner homemade noodles like spaghetti or angel hair pasta. They tend to start with fettuccine, tagliatelle and the like. The reason is that it’s difficult'especially in a busy restaurant setting'to cook freshly made spaghetti noodles without them becoming a messy, gloppy ball of starch.
The spaghetti with clam sauce ($13.50) at Michelangelo is nothing short of spectacular: It has that dead-on al dente bite that even fresh pasta should have, no starchiness whatsoever. It’s bathed in a silky white wine and butter sauce, topped with perfectly cleaned and cooked clams: not a grain of grit or a broken or unopened shell in the bunch. Still, my favorite dish is one I’ve taken to making at home whenever I can find fresh arugula: Spaghetti Michelangelo ($14.50). It’s that same superb spaghetti tossed simply with olive oil, garlic, arugula and shaved parmesan cheese (I put toasted pine nuts in mine). So spread the word about Michelangelo: There’s a Yankee in the kitchen!