Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Bivouac Eats: Mani Osteria (Ann Arbor, MI)

(image credit: maniosteria.com)

     On the corner of East Liberty and South Division Streets lies Ann Arbor's most oft mispronounced restaurant, Mani Osteria. Sitting outside, reclined in a wicker chair, it's not uncommon to hear at least a dozen different syllabic variations on the moniker of this superb pizzeria and Italian restaurant sitting smack in the middle of downtown. "Man-nee"? "Mah-nee"? "Oster-ee-uh"? "Os-ter-ayuh"? To the first time visitor, it's a mystery. But for the numerous repeat customers who pack the modern, open space bar and dining room every weekend, it doesn't matter what they call it as long as they get there - it's the food that keeps them coming back.

    Mani Osteria (mah-knee ohs-terr-ee-ah)  isn't so much of a name as it is a concept. In Italian, "mani" refers literally to "hands", but is commonly used to denote goods being "hand-made". An "osteria" is essentially a gastropub that emphasizes locally-sourced goods alongside a hearty selection of wine and beer. Push the two together, and you have "hands tavern" (thanks, Google Translate!) - imperfect Italian, but an immaculate guiding vision for an eatery serving expertly-crafted upscale casual crafted from local ingredients.

    I came in for dinner on a busy Friday night, and was seated right away at the "Chef's Counter", a laminated hardwood bar overlooking the kitchen. Service was expectedly prompt and I soon had water, a menu, and a warm introduction to Mani's house specialty: their handmade, wood-fired thin crust pizzas. Almost on queue, two pizzas were slid out of the oven directly in front of me, plated, and served, piping hot, on massive tomato sauce cans to an adjacent table. Talk about pushing the visuals! Pizza it is.

    In a typical pizza night crisis of faith, I ordered a salad to preemptively stave off the dough, cheese, and meat with which I would soon engorge myself. Mani's Caesar Salad is made with fresh local romaine, white anchovies, and a softboiled farm egg with yolk intact. Sensing my furrowed brow, my waitress explained that the egg was meant to be broken over the salad, the yolk mixing with the anchovies and dressing to provide the chef's intended experience.

That brown oval is the egg in question. Game-changing? I'd say so. 

     I may be a red-blooded skeptic, but hey, when in Rome... wow that's good. The texture of the egg shell, swirl of the yolk, and crunch of the farm fresh romaine all combine for the most atypical Caesar Salad I've ever had. The experimental nature of the dish had pushed me away at first glance, but each and every bite drew me in more. Leaps and bounds ahead of mountains of croutons slathered in creamy dressing? You better believe it.

    As I waxed poetic about the end of my delicious insalate, the same pizza-sliding wrist flick from across the Chef's Counter again caught my eye. I watched like a proud parent as my pizza slid off the paddle, steadied itself on one of Mani's trademark tomato can servers, and nearly floated over to my table. It's 'za time.

I wasn't kidding about that whole "view of the kitchen" thing.

   My Wild Mushroom and Zucchini pizza was perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing wheel of dough I've ever inhaled. As a college kid, I am used to pizza looking good enough, not good. Mani changed my idea of what pizza could be - and yes, it tasted every bit as good as it looked.

   I can not rave enough about Mani's dough: the thin crust made the topping-laden slices absolutely delicious, and, surprisingly light.  Even though each piece was chock full of vegetables, fontina cheese, and mushroom, the pizza didn't taste a hint of greasy. On top of it all, the wood-fired thin crust ensured that even the heaviest wayward slice still had enough rigid structure to travel from tray to mouth in one piece.

    Every bite was full of wonderfully-prepared vegetables and super high quality cheeses, with that airy thin crust to keep the entire meal from sitting too heavy. I finished the pizza (only God may judge me) with a single impression: this was a tomato pie, not pan-fired cheese and grease.

    Mani Osteria serves the best pizza I've ever had. Someone, somewhere in that kitchen has crafted artisan dough: the supreme Supreme. That's reason enough to go and go again, no matter how you pronounce it.

~Alex R. -Men's Fashion


Still hungry? Check out other editions of Bivouac Eats to get our take on Frita BatidosAventura, and The Jolly Pumpkin!

Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.

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