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By Bob Barnett

Unless you live and work in the city of Flint, you probably know my adopted hometown as a struggling Midwest metropolis, devastated by the implosion of General Motors, the meltdown of the housing market, and the colossal failure of our country’s financial system. Flint, like so many other cities in the region, has taken its lumps over the years, yet this place is also known for its valiant struggles to beat the odds, for its tenacious attempts to reinvent itself (AutoWorld not withstanding), and for its recent and ongoing successes at transforming itself into a vibrant college town with a diverse twenty-first century workforce. That’s the Flint, Michigan I know and love.

But like any town, Flint has its secrets.

Did you know, for example, that almost thirty thousand students attend Mott Community College, Kettering University, Baker College, and The University of Michigan-Flint? With the introduction of student housing to its downtown campus, UM-Flint is contributing to the revitalization of the downtown area.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Flint is home to seven local theatre companies, including Flint City Theatre, a group that performs at local venues like The Good Beans Café, The Buckham Art Gallery, and Red Ink Studios. And what about the half dozen art galleries in the downtown area? Once a month the local galleries host a Downtown Art Walk, and twice a year they host the Cool City Art Auction, an event that brings thousands of art lovers to the heart of the city.

But Flint’s biggest and best kept secret has to be its dynamic culinary scene. We’ve got a world class Japanese Bistro and Sushi Bar, a couple of outstanding Middle Eastern restaurants, Thai, Indian, Italian, Irish, Spanish and Mexican. I just finished an eight month lunch tour of our local Mexican restaurant scene. I visited twenty five locally owned Mexican eateries and discovered some of the best authentic Mexican food the Midwest has ever seen.

In coming weeks and months, I hope to share some of my best Flint food journeys with you, and along the way I’ll tempt you to visit the city I embrace as my own so you can see for yourself what a thriving, energetic place this is.  You’ll get glimpses into our local culture through events like the Flint Art Fair, Back to the Bricks, and the Crim Festival of Races. And as a special treat, I’ll be escorting you to the downtown area, where you can see the aggressive revitalization efforts which have resulted in the rebirth of our city’s core. With nearly a dozen restaurant choices in a six block area, and more opening in the coming months, I’ll turn you on to the hottest new foods, hangouts, and events as they happen.

I’ve chosen to start our journey not downtown, but rather someplace closer to the major exits that dot the I-69/23/75 corridor. I’ve decided to take you to my favorite restaurant in the Flint area: Salvatore Scallopini.

Savatore’s is an Old World Italian Bistro that was established in Southeast Michigan in 1982. With only five locations, Flint is in very swanky company. The other locations are Eastpointe, Madison Heights, Birmingham and Grosse Pointe Woods (anyplace that spells gross and point with an “e” on the end must be swanky—or at least a little pretentious). Flint is proud of its Salvatore’s, and so are a lot of others. The Detroit News, back when it was still printing papers, named Salvatore’s the Best Italian Restaurant of 2005.

I’ve been frequenting this place since my arrival in Flint sixteen years ago, and the food is every bit as good today as it was then. I remember eating dinner there with the woman who led the search to hire me at The University of Michigan-Flint. We toasted the day with a glass of Chardonnay, and I had the Chicken Marsala. The wine was excellent. The Chicken Marsala was To-Die-For. (When you come, don’t be afraid to ask for this dish, even though it’s not on the menu.) The incredible hospitality at Salvatore’s is just one of its many charms. I always say that a good dining experience is one that balances great food with appropriate ambiance and killer service. Salvatore’s has all three. All the time.

Ann is not only our favorite wait staff at Salvatore’s, she’s also one of the very best servers in the city of Flint. Her professionalism, accommodating demeanor, and super-friendly personality will win you over the minute you meet her. I’ve known her for all of the thirteen years she’s worked at Salvatore’s, and we’ve often shared pictures and endless stories with each other about our ever-expanding families. Even if you don’t get the pleasure of being Ann’s customer, every person who works at Salvatore’s has the same customer-friendly attitude as she does. Salvatore’s is the kind of place where the locals flock to, but many who are just passing through make sure to catch a stop here as well.

The meal I had tonight at Salvatore’s with my boyfriend, Philip, and our five-year-old daughter, Alexis, typifies, in every way, why it was voted Best Italian Restaurant five years ago. After being seated by the hostess, our waitress greeted us with a basket of crusty bread and a plate of olive oil and marinara to dredge it in. It’s a great start to the meal as you work through the menu, trying to narrow your choices. I like their menu because it’s not half a dozen pages long. The choices range from vegetarian pasta dishes to traditional Italian style plates to really good seafood and salmon presentations.

Of the six or seven appetizers, we’re always torn between the steamed mussels and the calamari. Both are so good that with a salad they could stand as a meal on their own. In fact, I’ve often ordered this way when I’ve come in for a quick lunch. Today we settled on the Steamed Mussels in White Wine Sauce. Make sure you don’t scarf down all the bread before this appetizer hits the table or you’ll definitely be asking for more. The bread, dipped in the wine sauce, soaks up the juices and bold flavors and makes a perfect accompaniment to the mussels, which are perfectly cooked, and packed with earthy/oceany flavors.

All of the dinner choices at Salvatore’s are also served with a cup of soup or the house salad. This too is a difficult choice, but if you can’t decide, then order both. You can always take some of your uneaten entrée home with you for a midnight snack. I always go for the Minestrone Soup, which is slow cooked until it gels almost into the consistency of stew. The bacon, pasta, bean, and vegetable combinations in every spoonful make for a near-perfect mixture of textures and flavors. But the salad is equally good. The salad itself is rather simple: some lettuce, a few chickpeas, and a couple of tomato slices. The Creamy Romano Dressing, however, is garlicky and upfront and intense; yet, tempered by the sweetness of the vegetables, it creates the perfect balance of subtle and bold tastes that you simply don’t expect in a salad.

Aside from the Chicken Marsala, my two favorite entrées at Salvatore’s are the Pasta Pollo Pepperone, and the Chicken Tosca. I got totally lucky tonight because I ordered the Pasta Pollo Pepperone, and Philip ordered the Chicken Tosca, so I got to have some of each. Alexis isn’t quite as adventurous so she stuck to the Macaroni and Cheese, except she didn’t want the cheese, so she ended up with a bowl of macaroni with butter which, by the way, she made a pretty good dent in. My Pasta Pollo Pepperone is a a combination of lightly breaded chicken breast pieces sautéed in generous amounts of olive oil with garlic, red peppers, green peppers, and hot Hungarian wax peppers. The whole pan of yumminess is then tossed with a linguini that’s made fresh on site. (All of the pasta is made fresh, and you can even buy it by the pound to take with you and cook at home). I didn’t even need a to-go box tonight because I couldn’t stop eating this stuff, and by the time I came up for air, there wasn’t enough left to bother wrapping up.

Make sure, whatever you order, that you save room for dessert. Even when I’m too full to need dessert, like tonight, I do it anyway because it is that irresistible. We ordered two desserts, not because the three of us had any chance of finishing them, but so I could report to you just how fantastic they were. Alexis chose what were in her words “the little chocolate balls with frosting.” She was referring, of course, to the Profiteroles, one of the most popular desserts on the menu. Philip ordered the king of desserts at Salvatore’s, the Tiramisu. With a cup of fresh coffee, you’ll never be the same again after eating this traditional Italian meal-ender.

Salvatore’s is located right at the Miller Road Exit off I-75 just before the I-69 exchange, so it’s easily accessible from any direction. If you want to get a peak at what you’re in for before you arrive, you can find everything you’re looking for on their website at http://www.salvatorescallopini.com.

© Bob Barnett, 2010