Find true Italian cooking and hospitality at Cafe Cortina.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photographed by Jerry Zolynsky, Jacob Giampa and Hilary Nichols
Wish you could take your sweetheart to a romantic dinner in Tuscany? If a trip to Italy isn’t in the cards right now, a visit to Cafe Cortina in Farmington Hills is the next best thing. Owner Rina Tonon and her family have carefully cultivated an atmosphere that transports you into a world of romance and hospitality with the most authentic Italian menu this side of the Atlantic.
“People come to us because they want a good memory in dining,” Rina says. “And our staff delivers that.”
Many on staff have been there for more than 30 years, such as Tammy Chavez, head event planner, and Timothy Bailey, seasoned head of the wait staff. Sommelier and dining room director Tomaso Cupp began working with the Tonons at age 19.
“They are all seasoned people who keep Cafe Cortina’s operation running smoothly,” she says.
Rina launched Cafe Cortina with her husband, Adriano, 40 years ago. They both were born in Italy to families who had a passion for food and service. Rina’s parents eventually came to Detroit to open a restaurant on Fenkell and Schaefer called Rina’s, where she began helping her parents in the kitchen when she was 10 years old.
She and Adriano had a mission: to have their own small restaurant, a special place where couples could go to enjoy food, hospitality and genuineness. They named it after Cortina D’Ampezzo, an Italian village near the Tonon family.
“When we decided to open Cafe Cortina on 10 Mile, we understood it was a gamble, but we felt confident if we built, clients would come back. We worked long hours at the restaurant and got to know our clients when they walked through our doors. The two of us were both happy to spend time and work together.”
They had a busy life raising kids, too, but working together was fun for them, she says. They happily raised two sons, Adrian and Giancarlo.
Oldest son, Adrian, was raised in the tough restaurant life, understanding his parents’ dedication. When his father passed away in 1993, he traveled to Italy to find work, wanting to learn more of his parents’ culture. Apprenticing six months at Venice’s Hotel Cipriani, “he returned home with a book of beautiful Italian recipes from his favorite chefs, and then I knew the restaurant had a future beyond me,” said Rina, who, as a young widow, immediately started renovations at Cafe Cortina to start a new chapter in her now solo career.
Rina continues to be inspired by the talented kitchen staff working at Cafe Cortina. “The people who are with me are very passionate about their cooking. Today, our longtime staff oversees the new facet of the restaurant, customizing weekly events, theme dinners, personal dinners, receptions, etc. Our clientele want quality, we provide.”
Today, Adrian keeps watch on service at Cafe Cortina while also working in the administration of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. Younger son, Giancarlo, resides and works in Chicago.
Cafe Cortina has an international clientele that has developed over 40 years. “I thought it was a cute story when a new client once told me he was in a taxi in Florence when the driver asked where he was from. He said, ‘Detroit’ and the driver told him he had heard about this restaurant there called Cafe Cortina. That’s how he learned about us.”
The staff, she emphasizes, shares her passion for quality and authenticity. “Listening to Tomaso as he selects wine for the restaurant inspires me. He brings something exciting to the table,” Rina says.
Tomaso’s inspiration is finding unique moderately priced wines from the classic regions of Italy to complement the Italian recipes.
“I fell in love with the food and the wine when I began working here at 19,” says Tomaso, who studied to become a certified sommelier. “Wine is part of the experience here. We want to offer our clients wines they’ve never tasted before and educate them about Italian wines, our passion. Once you drink an Italian wine, it becomes your friend for life.”
The chefs prepare sauces made from the recipes of Rina’s mother (and are available at markets such as Vince & Joes and Papa Joe’s) and the dishes represent the classic regions of Italy, such as Cacio Pepe, a classic Roman pasta dish. Customers can’t go wrong with pasta at Cafe Cortina, where many artisan pastas are kneaded and hand cut each day.
“It’s fresh, simple Italian cooking, dishes with four or five superstar ingredients of the finest quality,” she says. “And our chefs continue to innovate, creating new dishes that capture the essence of Italian cooking.”
In April, Cafe Cortina’s Chef Antopia hosted a themed authentic Spanish dinner with the dishes he was raised with. The event sold out in a week. Another themed dinner will be held in late August featuring the cuisine of Isola Di Ponza, an island off the coast of Rome where Rina’s parents originated.
“Cooking dishes from Ponza doesn’t get any better,” says Rina, who spent the summers of her childhood there. “Chef Ernesto captures the flavors of Ponza with his Mediterranean Pesce Spada.”
Cafe Cortina also maintains a large garden, which produces Tonon’s fresh produce, including heirloom tomatoes grown with seeds from Italy and fresh herbs for the kitchen.
“When my husband and I started the restaurant 40 years ago, that garden was a tradition and meaningful,” Rina says. “It’s now part of our legacy. We believe Adriano’s spirt is still here today, and if we lost his garden, we would lose the history of Cafe Cortina.”
As Rina’s son Adrian often says since the restaurant was voted “Most Romantic” in Michigan by House Beautiful magazine, “Cafe Cortina is a natural aphrodisiac.” NS
30715 W. 10 Mile Road, Farmington Hills (248) 474-3033, cafecortina.com