By Dianna Stampfler
When Rina and Adriano Tonon plotted a five-acre chef’s garden as part of Café Cortina’s original blueprint back in 1976, people said they were crazy. Yet, over time, the garden has rooted this Italian destination eatery — located in Farmington Hills — as one of Michigan’s original farm-to-table venues.
Today, under the watchful eye of son Adrian Tonon (a third-generation restaurateur), the gardens have grown into an integral part of the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. Considered one of the Metro Detroit area’s best-kept secrets, Café Cortina delivers rustic peasant fare (or “farm chic,” as Adrian calls it) with polished service.
“We strive to create moments of happiness, of genuine hospitality,” he noted. “We feel fortunate to be able make a positive difference in our local community — breaking bread is the one of the greatest things in life.”
Once an apple orchard, the grounds of this artisanal eatery are now adorned with aromatic herbs and vegetables reminiscent of old world Italy: rapini, arugula, radicchio, Swiss chard, basil, rosemary, mint, eggplant, zucchini and nearly four dozen 80-year-old heirloom tomato plants.
“Tomatoes are the base of Italian cooking, and we want to bring in as many flavors from our homeland as we can,” said Adrian.
While using freshly harvested produce is the ultimate goal, some items are processed by Chef Jeffrey “Hoffa” Hoffman and his team. Tomatoes are sun-dried or canned and basil is turned into pesto. Consumers can also find the Ristorante Café Cortina brand of sauces (such as Pomodoro Veneziana, Aglio Del Veneto, Sughetto and Sugo Del Veneto) at specialty markets.
Nestled between downtown Grand Rapids and GR’s trendy Eastown District, The Winchester is rooted as a neighborhood focal point. Touted as a gastro-pub, its menu lends a creative spin to many popular bar favorites, with much of the fresh produce grown just steps away from the venue’s front door in a 50-foot by 50-foot city lot that Winchester owner Paul Lee converted into an urban garden several years ago.
In fact, the flourishing property — now in its third season — has become so ingrained in the operation of The Winchester that a full-time gardener has been hired to manage it, along with a larger greenhouse facility located about three miles away that’s primarily used for micro-greens and plant starts.
Dedicated to supporting local growers and producers, The Winchester sources more common, plentiful items from the nearby Fulton Street Farmers Market or from regional producers. The venue’s urban garden is dedicated space for nurturing more unique crops.
“We choose to grow things we’d typically have to source from places like Chicago,” explained Chef Nick Natale. “That way, we have the best of all worlds.”
Among the bounty growing in The Winchester’s garden are several varieties of radishes and carrots, kohlrabi, baby bok choy, heirloom tomatoes and bouquets of fragrant herbs. To take full advantage of the summer growing season, once a particular crop has been depleted, a new start is planted.
Having access to fresh ingredients means that Chef Nick can tailor his menu at any given moment, based on the day’s pick. The bounty is used not only for The Winchester, but for its popular gourmet food truck, What The Truck, which services local street fairs and special events.
Owner Paul Lee shared that while a recent USA Today article about the garden and equally unique vehicle provided ample national exposure, it’s just business as usual at The Winchester. “Everyone is special and deserves a memorable experience,” he said.
Dianna Stampfler is a West Michigan freelance writer. Michigan BLUE Magazine