This piece is part of an occasional series on metro Detroit's immigrant chefs. If you know of a chef we should profile, let us know!
Luciano Gianino is committed to providing visitors to his family-run restaurant with real Italian meals, the kind he remembers from his youth in Sicily.
Located near 17 Mile and Garfield Roads in Clinton Township, Luciano’s, offers a wealth of delicious foods originating in the Bel Paese, everything from the fried eggplant and charbroiled seafood dishes of Southern Italy, to the tasty risottos and creamy pastas popular in the north.
“We concentrate on true Italian cuisine,” says Gianino. “We brought in the old recipes from the old country that sometimes you don’t even find anymore over there anymore.“
Patrons of Luciano’s have a bounty of culinary options to choose from including Penne Casarecce (pasta with spinach, prosciutto, and mushrooms with a touch of meat sauce and Italian cheeses), Marinated Octopus, Chicken Toscana (breaded chicken breast topped with a lemon cream sauce), Sicilian-style steak with ammoghio sauce, Swordfish Ai Ferri (char-grilled swordfish topped with olive oil, fresh-cut garlic, lemon, and parsley), not to mention an ample selection of soups, salads, desserts, and sandwiches.
Luciano's. Photo by Stephen Koss.
The Gianino family prepares its own pastas, sauces, cannoli creams, and tiramisus in-house. The only pre-cooked items listed on the menu are the sauces, which can be quite time-consuming to prepare.
What’s more, meals are cooked up individually from scratch in a single pan for every customer who steps in the door. Luciano’s does its best to accommodate special requests too, whether they be inquiries for gluten-free pasta or special Italian dishes made just the way a customer desires. Although this sometimes it’ll take the kitchen staff a little longer to prepare, the extra time is worth it for Gianino who prides his establishment on its quality and authenticity.
“We do work with our heart, not with our pocketbook,” he says, “because, if I were to work with my pocketbook, I’d have more than one restaurant.”
From Sicily to Michigan, and back again
The origin story of Luciano’s business begins in Augusta, Italy, the town of his birth. Located in Eastern Sicily facing the Ionian Sea, Augusta is a venerable Italian municipality founded by Emperor Frederick II in the 13th Century. Gianino his early years there growing up in a family with ties to the fishing industry and local cafés.
In 1963, he immigrated with his parents, Salvatore and Rosa, brother and two sisters to Detroit, Michigan where his uncle, Orazio, was already living and working. A few years later, though, his entry into the U.S. military would take him on a journey back to his home country.
In 1967, Gianino was drafted and joined the Navy, where he would serve four years. During a nine-month stint on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, he learned there was a U.S. Air Force base in his hometown of Augusta. Heeding the call of his homeland, he transferred there and, as luck would have it, met the love of his life Rosa. They married and returned to Michigan where they started a family.
After leaving the service, Gianino followed in the example of his uncle and brother and became a truck driver. For many years, he supported his family by hauling steel around the country. As his kids grew older, he put money aside to open the restaurant that would become Luciano’s.
Part of his motivation for this endeavor came from the fact that he couldn’t find any local restaurants that served Italian food in the traditional way he loved.
“That was always my dream,” he says. “I wanted to open the restaurant to make the food the way it really is in Italy, so people could really appreciate it. I wanted to do it right!”
With that in mind, he and his family opened the first incarnation of Luciano’s in Shelby Township in 1987. It turned out to be a great place to launch a starter business. Although the facility was small—just 1,400 square-feet with a 40-person seating capacity— it gave his family the opportunity to learn the ropes of the restaurant business on a scale they could manage. Over time, their hard work and dedication began to bear fruit, with Luciano’s attracting a growing clientele made up of locals and members of the area’s Italian-American community.
Luciano's. Photo by Stephen Koss.
In 1990, the Gianinos sold the original restaurant and relocated to their current 6,300 square-foot facility in Clinton Township. Nestled in a freshly built commercial strip and featuring a beautiful classically-inspired interior, the new location offered a more attractive backdrop for potential customers and plenty of room for their business to grow.
A tasty legacy
Nearly thirty years later, Luciano’s is now a thriving business that draws visitors from all over Southeast Michigan and beyond. The establishment is particularly popular with the Italian community.
“If they want to impress people who come from Italy, this Is the place where they bring them,” says Gianino.
Luciano’s proprietor attributes much of the restaurant’s success to the hard work of his family and staff, especially to the efforts of his wife, Rosa, whom he says is a “great cook” and “the pillar of the restaurant.” Beyond that, he feels people are drawn to the look, feel and taste of Luciano’s.
“The atmosphere is happy. No matter where I sit in the place, it’s comfortable,” he says. “And when people leave, they’re satisfied with the food—and they always come back."