Merging home and abroad

New restaurant to serve up cultural experience

BALDWIN – Husband and wife team Paul Santoro and Dina Velocci, of the Baldwin area, have unveiled their plan to deliver an unprecedented culinary and cultural experience for locals and visitors alike.

Combining influences of old and new, the village and big city, America and abroad, the new owners of the two story building at 876 Michigan Avenue, originally Baldwin's Masonic Temple, have reimagined and redeveloped the two-story building with the support of a $450,000 Michigan Community Revitalization Program grant, offered through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and in collaboration with the Village of Baldwin and Lake Osceola State Bank.

The lower level will feature an entirely new 108 seat restaurant with a wood fired pizza oven, while the upper level provides additional housing with three one-bedroom, one-bath, loft style apartments. The works of local artists and historic elements will be highlighted throughout.

Both in the nurse anesthesiology profession, Velocci and Santoro also have a passion for food and culture. As an avid fly fisherman, Santoro has fished the Pere’ Marquette for over 30 years and owned property on the Little South Branch for about 20. The owners bring their love for the area along with influences from their cultural heritage.

Velocci was born in New York, a first-generation Italian, her family owned a deli which was rated number one in the city by the New York Times in the 1970s. Velocci brings authentic Italian cuisine and other influences from places she has lived and traveled. Santoro, a second-generation Sicilian, born and raised in the greater Detroit area combines his passion for entrepreneurship with his love of wine and diverse cuisine.

“I love food of all different genres. We are trying to bring a really dynamic thing to the community — and especially with COVID, want to bring normalcy — a special place for everyone,” Velocci said, also mentioning along with food entrees, guests will have their choice of craft cocktails, quality bourbons and wines to compliment meals.

“Paul’s family is from Trapani, on the island of Sicily, and my family is from Monte San Giovanni Campano, which is outside of Rome. There are regional food differences in both places, and we both cook family recipes,” Velocci said, adding she still has a great uncle in Italy whose family comes together regularly for a big meal – all provided by food from his land.

In addition to their Italian heritage, with Velocci being from New York City, and Santoro from Detroit, the culture of the big cities also is an influence, “The Big Apple meets the Motor City,” explained Velocci. In addition, having spent over 25 years in Nashville, Velocci loves southern cooking and soul food and plans to bring those authentic influences while accessing Michigan’s abundant farm-to-table offerings.

Along with the varieties of food offered, guests will be able to enjoy art through structural designs and showcase pieces. Detroit artist Angela Santoro’s mixed-media art will be featured, as well as a 25 foot wood and metal mural by Caleb Goins, and a number David Ruimveld originals commissioned for fly fishing legend Jac Ford’s , soon to be released book The View From the Middle Seat – Lessons Learned From a Life Time of Trophy Hunting.

“We are displaying art which pays homage to this area and Michigan roots,” Velocci said, also mentioning this theme knits together with Baldwin’s trout fishing tradition and the culture of the town such as the world’s largest brown trout sculpture just a block north on M-37.

“We would also like to use the restaurant to support Baldwin’s many community events, offer entertainment and host special events for fly tying and book signings,” she added.

The design of the establishment combines a stylish yet comfortable setting while keeping with local themes. The original concrete floor will be polished, and all wood reclaimed was utilized to create accents around the building.

“We are really big on keeping historic elements from this building, which was built in the early 1940s and at one time a Masonic temple, and repurposing it,” Velocci said. “We have a 12-foot community table made of live-edge native white pine engraved with the Pere Marquette’s famous “Flies Only” stretch and is positioned under a unique lighting fixture crafted from an antique drift boat. The quartz tables are to represent the stones on the riverbed. The chairs are comfortable, with no arms, designed to accommodate everyone.

"Whether you are out for a special evening or just off the river in your waders, we are offering a unique and comfortable place to gather and enjoy great food and drink. We will have a soft-seating area with velvet couches, chairs, and gorgeous lighting. We want this to be a relaxing place for people to get together and have a drink, snack of a few appetizers or relax for a complete dinner."

"The men’s restroom will have a rustic design and will display a hand carved buffalo head from Indonesia. The women’s restroom will have beautiful lighting, art by Mexican painter Frida Khalo, and heated toilet seats – something I insisted on.” Velocci added laughing.

The apartments rentals on the upper level will be a 1950s retro style, with high ceilings, and walls with grays, cream and touches of gold color-schemes.

“We are going to make this place really unique and do something no one else is doing. We are making it a mix of places I love to go, great food, excellent art, culture, craft cocktails and Michigan roots,” Velocci said. “It will have a small-town culture but also tastes of the wider world. We will keep this as Baldwin but enjoy the fruits of elsewhere as well.”

Chef Glenn Forgie, who is classically French trained and will serve as executive chef and general manager, was excited when his first order of pots and pans were delivered on site.

“Now, the madness begins.” he joked. “We hope to be ready by mid-to-late September. Our project manager, Randall Meyering of West Side Construction Services has been right on track and doing a tremendous job. Chris Hayano, a former Chicago marketing executive and now a Baldwin local, has filled the role of creative director, developing our marketing and branding strategy. It takes a team to do the job right and we have a great one.”

If everything goes as planned, down the road Velocci is hoping to establish a bakery and coffee shop in the area as well, designed with local reclaimed barn wood and fashioned as a historical cabin. Velocci is excited as opening to the public gets closer and closer. Stay tuned for more details as that date approaches.