Hip, handmade Italian

. February 5, 2013.

Mani Osteria & Bar
341 E. Liberty
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Mon. Closed
Tue.-Thurs. 11:30am-10pm
Fri. 11:30am-11pm
Sat. 11am–11pm
Sun. 4pm-9pm

I drive through the intersection of Liberty and Division every week. Usually I notice nothing, but this spring I watched as one corner, formerly occupied by a used furniture store, slowly transformed into Mani Osteria & Bar. With all my refinement,
I naively thought it was a restaurant that served oysters.

Actually, ‘mani’ means hand or handmade in Italian while ‘osteria’ refers to a type of tavern. Open since May, Mani Osteria is a hip Italian eatery specializing in homemade pasta and wood-fired pizza.

The bar area is closest to the front door, surrounded by large windows. Most seating is at dark wood tables lined up near the wood fired pizza oven and open kitchen in the back. The restaurant was crowded and boisterous the night my family of four dined there, with few, if any, other children present. Kids are definitely welcome, though.

Fresh, off-the-farm

Owner Adam Baru, who recently returned to the area with his wife and four-year-old after seven years in Philadelphia, told me they try to do everything they can to accommodate families, such as having space to park a stroller. “Having a four-year-old of my own,” he said, “it is important
to me that the restaurant offers good quality food, not processed, with fresh, off-the-farm ingredients, served in a way that kids like.”

Mani offers antipasti, zuppe, insalata, wood fired pizza and pasta made in house. Prices range from $6-$14 for antipasti to $10-$24 for pasta. Dishes are designed to share. I wanted to start with the crispy pork belly with apricot marmellato and oregano, but my family vetoed that idea. The server suggested Arancini: deep-fried risotto croquettes, prosciutto and romesco cheese.

The Arancini had a nice balance between the light crust outside and gooey, cheesy rice inside. My four-year-old enthused, “yum!” Even my picky eight-year-old added, “It’s really good.”

The kids ordered cheese pizza off the ‘bambini menu’. Other kids’ menu choices
include pepperoni pizza, ‘pasta clean’ with butter, and ‘pasta messy’ with red sauce. All selections are $8, including juice
or pop.

 “Oh, man, this is one of those vegetable pizzas,” my son complained when his pizza arrived. I saw nothing but fresh melted
cheese and tomato sauce. There may have been two flecks of basil. He settled on eating the crust and cheesiest bites. My daughter happily consumed two of the six pieces or her plate-size pie.

Chic Italia

The Farmer’s Market pizza, with peaches, prosciutto, mint and thyme, had sounded intriguing, but my husband and I settled on the safer wild mushroom and ham pizza with smoked scamorza and garlic cream ($15). It was served playfully on a can of tomatoes. The thin, lightly charred crust provided a delicate base for the stronger flavor of mushroom and garlic. It was gourmet compared to take-out pizza.

“Do you have room for gelato?” I asked the kids. My son broke into a large smile. My daughter pointed to several places on her belly. “I’ve got room right here, right here and right here…”

The generous scoops of chocolate gelato were plenty for them to share. It tasted dense and somehow more like ice cream than gelato should. My husband and I sampled the cannoli plate with chocolate, lemon-ricotta and pistachio cannolis. While small, they were tasty and satisfying.

The tart but sweet lemon-ricotta was my favorite.

Mani Osteria is a chic Italian eatery where kids are welcome, even if the only other ‘children’ dining around you are college freshman. If your family is looking for an upgrade to your dining experience, give it a try.

To avoid wait Go before 6:30pm on Friday and Saturday nights or visit on weeknights or at lunchtime
Noise level Very high
Bathroom amenities Both men’s and women’s restrooms have changing stations
High chairs Yes
Got milk Yes
Kids’ menu Yes
Anything healthy for kids Pasta Messy with red sauce or Pasta Clean with butter
Food allergy concerns Mani Osteria takes allergies to peanuts, diary, gluten, etc. very seriously. Servers are well versed about the made-from-scratch dishes and trained to ask management or the chef if unsure.

Katy M. Clark is a freelance writer from Saline.