As bars and restaurants in Michigan begin reopening dining rooms, many operators are going beyond the pivot to carryout and reinventing themselves out of whole cloth to adapt to diners’ reset whims.
In the case of upscale Pernoi in Birmingham, the white cloth that dominated the classy yacht-like space will soon be checkered instead.
Because beginning June 16, Pernoi will welcome guests inside again for the first time in months as Casa Pernoi, a far more relaxed and homestyle version of the caviar-and-champagne restaurant it was pre-COVID.
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“I dont know what the future is going to be,” said chef-owner Luciano DelSignore. “I don’t know if we’re going to be flipped into a deep recession in the coming months. And fine dining scares me right now. This is more recession-proof.”
DelSignore said that his flagship restaurant, Southfield’s Bacco, did very well during the 2008 downturn and so Casa Pernoi aims to follow that type of model without duplicating any of the items on its sister restaurant’s menu.
“There’s no point in me cannibalizing myself and sticking two Baccos near each other,” he said. “So it’s going to have its own approach.”
The signature item at Casa Pernoi will be one that draws on DelSignore’s own nostalgic memories of dining out as a young kid: the bread basket.
“We used to judge places on the quality of the bread that hit the table,” he said. “It’s kind of nostalgic to me because it disappeared. There’s not too many places that still do it and I wanted to bring it back.”
Pernoi lead pastry chef Tanya Fallon, who prepared the divine baguettes featured at Pernoi pre-COVID as well as desserts, will now be dedicated full-time to bread baking. Her former pastry assistant, Katerina Bosnjakovski, is now head pastry chef and will be making desserts such as tiramisu and house-made cannoli.
The bread basket will start every meal at the newly casualized spot fronting Maple and the menu is designed to highlight that. A dozen or so sub-$10 antipasti (think: roasted peppers, sliced mortadella, marinated artichokes) are designed to accompany the bread.
There’s also an assortment of small plates (beef carpaccio, charred octopus), house-made pasta, fish and meat. Pricing hews closer to that of Bacco than the old Pernoi, where a tasting menu for two with wine pairings and tip could easily stretch to $500 or more.
For the first time since DelSignore’s family’s restaurant Fonte D’Amore closed in Livonia, the chef will be featuring a veal parmigiana on his menu, alongside other Italian comfort classics that reflect his first-generation upbringing.
The DelSignore family hails from the Italian region of Abruzzo, where arosticini — lamb skewers grilled over charcoal — are a staple. With Casa Pernoi, DelSignore is bringing some of that rustic Abruzzesse flavor to Birmingham.
“We’re doing hand-cut and skewered lamb arosticini,” he said. “We’re going to have charcoal grills outside and arosticini roasting at all times. You’re going to be smelling this lamb all over the city.”
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The previously buttoned-up service staff will also trade their vests and slacks for jeans and white button-downs. And there have been some major personnel changes, as well, though some of the new faces will be familiar to Birmingham and Bacco regulars.
MaryAnn Vozza, the former longtime bartender at Birmingham restaurant Phoenicia, will now serve as bar manager at Casa Pernoi. (Pro tip: Her Paper Plane cocktails are among the best around.) And former Bacco general manager Jared Gorback has joined Casa as GM. Chef de cuisine Justin Ryan Fulton departed during the shutdown and has been replaced by sous chef Logan Robb.
Another familiar face on the local dining scene, Liz Martinez, formerly of Prime & Proper downtown, has joined Casa Pernoi as sommelier.
“Her passion is Italian wine, so it’s a great fit and she’s really excited,” DelSignore said.
Casa Pernoi will allow for both reservations and walk-ins. And even with the 50% maximum capacity limits mandated by the state, it can still seat 80 diners between the bar, dining room and courtyard patio. Per mandate, all tables are spaced at least 6 feet apart and staff will be wearing face coverings and gloves. DelSignore has also invested in touchless payment technology and Plexiglass dividers where necessary.
The restaurant will open at 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and will be adding Sunday dinner service once things get rolling.
The Pernoi rebrand highlights the steep hill fine dining restaurants are faced with as the economy slowly recovers from the upheaval brought upon it by COVID-19. Fine dining in particular requires a high staff-to-guest ratio, premium prices and lots of contact between guests and staff. It’s anyone’s guess as to when the dining public will be comfortable with that type of service — and those prices — again.
DelSignore points to Pernoi’s carryout business as evidence of the shift. The first week of the shutdown, the restaurant offered its bistro menu to-go. On the second week, the restaurant casualized its offerings and temporarily rebranded as Trattoria Pernoi, offering Italian comfort classics. DelSignore said the carryout business doubled overnight.
And even when Casa Pernoi launches and diners slowly begin to trickle back in, DelSignore said the curbside carryout service will remain a fixture. The entire Casa Pernoi menu will be available to go.
Casa Pernoi: 310 E. Maple, Birmingham; pernoibirmingham.com and 248-940-0000.

“Dinner in Abruzzo” is the story of two Detroit chefs’ culinary trip to Abruzzo, Italy, to attend a cousin’s wedding and cook for family.

Detroit Free Press