A Meat Tempest in West Town

Michael Nagrant / 03.09.18

What happens when a whole bunch of people who worked at Publican Quality Meats, and also Zingerman’s, the famed Ann Arbor deli, open their own concern? They create something that is somehow twice is as good as PQM.

Which is amazing. If you don’t know Zingerman’s, it basically invented foodie culture in the Midwest. Through a combination of idiosyncratic cartoons and storytelling, they have found a way to sell things like Reuben sandwich kits for the price of a second-generation iPad.

And, well, Paul Kahan, godfather of the Publican, is a golden god.

There is nothing wrong with Publican Quality Meats. It sells lots of cool things, great cured meats, Thai drinking vinegars etc..  But, also the last couple of times I’ve been there, the ratio of meat to bread in some of the sandwiches was a little off. The salads were not as well-dressed as they could be. Execution was loose.  While it’s unquestionably a hardcore butcher shop, PQM gives off a hipster vibe. It doesn’t feel like community. You don’t go there to belong somewhere, but to cure a hangover after partying all night at the nearby Ace Hotel.

But, Tempesta, full of warm woods, a trove of cookbooks, and fresh muffuletta, feels like home.  If it wasn’t so busy, you’d bring a good book and make an afternoon of it.

What’s really important here is that although Tempesta Market is inspired and influenced by three generations of an Italian family, it doesn’t feel like a cheap come on from Big Nonna. Which is to say, grandma is not in the kitchen. Frank Sinatra did not eat here (mostly because he was dead before this place opened – he’d love it). Dried pasta isn’t sitting in glass jars and the house audio system isn’t playing “That’s Amore”.

You may think Big Nonna is a joke. It’s not. There’s a reminder of stereotypical Italian grandma tropes we have often been force fed found in a cookbook on the shelf at Tempesta titled “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”.

Not only do you have to be an Italian grandmother, but you better be fat too! I’m pretty sure the relatively svelte Giada De Laurentis will cut anyone who says she can’t cook. Then again, Giada obviously believes that you can’t really cook Italian food unless you’re wearing a low-cut cleavage-baring shirt. There are lobbies everywhere!

Mario Batali of course is not particularly skinny, and we know we can’t trust him right now. I can no longer shop at his grocery concern Eataly, because I don’t want to line his pockets while he plans his comeback from groping. This may be Publican’s issue too, as its once driving heart, chef Cosmo Goss, was fired from the restaurant group for not reporting sexual harassment.

While many people treat sadness with drugs, therapy, or sexual harassment addiction, I often did it with visits to Batali’s Eataly. That I could load up a cart with shaved truffles, fresh pasta, and 375 ml bottles of Carpano Antica, the best sweet vermouth of all time, brought a certain buoyancy.

But, now I can barely make it through a red sauce making session without thinking of sexual harassment because I use a modified form of Batali’s recipe. As my friends have told me, including Rob Levitt, owner of Butcher & Larder, Italian grandmas have been cooking red sauce this way for years so you don’t need to worry about Mario.

And so, we are back to Italian grandmas. Yes, some of them are very good, but many grandmas, not just Italian, are so bad at making food, they might poison you. This is based on my own unscientific sample which suggests the number is around 50% (I will not say which grandma it is because while they are both departed, their children are not, and someone might get hurt). But, even then, we love the food of the grandmas who maybe dabble in botulism cultures because they also slipped us hard candy and dollar bills when our parents weren’t looking.

But petty cash and diabetes, while fine, is not great cooking. Tempesta’s Mike Rivera is not a grandma. He’s a reasonably skinny chef with over a decade of kitchen experience. Part of his menu, like the gem salad, are deliberately influenced by Publican. But Weezy and Yeezy came from Jay Z. Influence is the way of the world. What you do with that influence is what matters, and the gem here is tufted with creamy vinaigrette and shavings of rare roast beef, and is superior to any gem salad I’ve had at Publican.

The St. Gennaro features a shiny brioche dome stuffed with a tiny curled link of sputtering and sizzling spicy Italian sausage slicked with tangy pickled pepper, caramelized onion, pink fingered Lolla Rossa lettuces, and lustrous aioli.

The muffuletta too is grand. Although, it is not a muffuletta. It is a house baked round of focaccia spilling over with olive salad and Tempesta’s house-cured meats. The mortadella in particular is a diaphanous revelation. This upscale riff does make me miss the simple sesame and yeast perfume of the New Orleans-based Central Grocery muff. If you want that, you’ll have to cough up $109 for two of them, shipped, a price that I believe impresses the staff at Zingerman’s.

There is nduja gelato on offer, i.e. gelato swirled with spreadable salumi. This is sort of a tongue-in-cheek attempt to displace bacon. While it’s a nice sweet and salty mélange, it is not a necessity. For now, girls, as Beyonce says, and not nduja, will rule the world. The gelato in general is the stuff hot summer night dreams are made of.

Tempesta is also a market and while it doesn’t displace Eataly in abundance and luxury, it provides a fantastic array of goods. The duck confit is basically the ultimate in fast food assuming you can work a skillet to sear the skin to a potato chip crisp. The Calabrian chili-studded pimento cheese is pimento cheese for the kind of people who love the IPA arms race where brewers add so many hops, you feel like you’re drinking weed. It’s extreme flavor pimento cheese, a fusion of cheddar and fire. The best part is that shopping at Tempesta doesn’t make you feel bad or induce doubt, unless you have cholesterol issues, and even then, sausage-consumption is such a beautiful way to die.

Tempesta Market, 1372 W. Grand Ave., 312.929.2551