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I’m not usually one to take food home from a restaurant. Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed to ask for a Doggie Bag when it’s clear that I am the dog. Other times I know that while I may want to eat the rest for leftovers, it’s often best for me to eat salad at home, not restaurant food. But there are times when I can’t finish what’s in front of me (rare, but true), and when I also can’t bear to part with it either. It is in these situations that I relent and take the leftovers home for the “dog,” er, me. (And yes, Craig gets some, too.) I did this the other night at Mia Dona, and I’m so glad I did because I’ve just finished a most wonderful lunch of baked paccheri. This is a dry artisanal tubular pasta shaped like wide cuffs that’s cooked al dente and then smothered in sweet soft plum tomato sauce, and melting layers of smoky bufala mozzarella that stretch like taffy from fork to mouth. I ate part of it standing over my kitchen sink, cold (I love cold pasta), and then stopped myself and heated the rest up and ate like a civilized person.Review By: Andrea Strong
The previous night at Mia Dona with Julie, Kathy and Katherine, it was served to us in a earthen clay pot, not unlike a rice pot you might find at a Korean restaurant filled with bibimpop. When the pot’s lid was removed, it revealed bubbly gobs of cheese and sauce, the molten topping for more layers of pasta, sauce and cheese. As the steam rose from the pot, a server began to add the finishing touch: dollops of fresh cool ricotta cheese ($10/15).
It was then that I announced my intention to take any remaining paccheri home with me. As I made this announcement I realized I was being rude to my friends. Perhaps they wanted to take some home, too? And so I asked, “Unless you guys want to take some home, too?” But it was the sort of question where the people answering it know better than to say yes. Well, it had to be done. Indeed, I challenge you to go to Mia Dona and not muscle your way into taking home the paccheri. Even if you finish it you’ll secretly want to order another to go. You might feel this way several other dishes on the menu because the food is quite good and it’s also really fun to eat. Or maybe it’s just that I have too much fun with food? That’s possible, too.
In any case, Mia Dona is a revival of sorts of Dona, the elegant temple of modern Greek and Italian fare that Donatella Arpaia and chef-partner Michael Psilakis sadly were forced to shutter due to a real estate issue after a very successful opening run. With this do-over, the pair decided to bring it down a notch, putting out a menu with a much more reasonable price point than at Dona, one that actually matches our economic times. Entrees here range from $17 to $24, a welcome change for the neighborhood. The more reasonably-priced menu is also reflected in the décor, which while still sophisticated, is far more casual, with wood table tops, blond wood lattice work, and black and white floral wallpaper that lends the three-room space a very warm yet striking Metropolitan Home vibe.
Matching the relaxed look of the place is the beverage list which also reflects a more easygoing vibe. Wines are divided by “Wines I Order when I am Celebrating,” “Wines I Drink When I Don’t Have to Pay the Check,” and that sort of thing.
Another surprise is that you’ll find beer by the pitcher (very feminine glass pitchers) at Mia Dona. Yes, pitchers of beer. Your choices include Guinness, PBR, Amstel, Stella, and Paulaner Hefeweizen. The beers go great with one of the most inspired dishes on the menu, the crispy fried rabbit ($12) served sort of KFC-styled in a wrought iron bucket with super salt and vinegar potato chips and a cucumber remoulade. It’s a great beer-at-the-bar-snack; the remoulade is perfect for dunking the crunchy meaty rabbit legs, like you might a buffalo wing in blue cheese. Another natural beer mate is the crispy bacccala, a miraculously light and airy fish cake, served over a fried plank of creamy ricotta, garnished with potatoes and garlic gremolata ($10).
The rest of the menu follows suit with fun, spirited food that’s not as polished as at Dona, but instead reflects a more rustic approach. Concentrating on Italy rather than a hybrid of Italy and Greece, the food at Mia Dona tastes, in many cases, like it came from a home kitchen, albeit a very talented home kitchen of someone you’d like very much to move in with.
Under pastas, in addition to that paccheri, you’ll find a bowl of bigoli—thick hollowed out spaghetti, rubbed with garlic and tossed with broccoli rabe, lentils and hunks of spicy sausage and pecorino cheese. This dish is substantial, not elegant. It’s a stick to your ribs pasta built for a hearty appetite on a cold winter night. The only pasta that gets a bit fancy is his gnudi, which remain ethereal, fashioned from sheep’s milk ricotta and sauced in a coronary’s worth of truffle butter sauce showered with crispy speck and mushrooms ($10/$16).
Eggs, a traditional mark of peasant food, play an important role at Mia Dona. This makes me very happy, as I tend to put eggs on everything—steaks, chicken, pasta, burgers, salads, sandwiches, favorite books. In my mind, there is no food, save perhaps chocolate layer cake, that cannot be improved by a nice fried or poached egg. Psilakis and I see eye-to-eye on this point. He serves a juicy roasted pork chop ($19) with a salad of frisee, lardons, and gorgonzola, and tops off the chop with a fried egg, sunny side up, so that yolk runs down and sauces the whole plate. Fantastic.
A seven-minute soft-boiled egg is the literal centerpiece of a brilliant dish called Polpettone ($18)—a Florentine “meatloaf” made from a classic meatball recipe trio—veal, pork, and beef. This is another dish I was hoping to stash away for lunch but before I knew it, it was gone.
While some dishes stick to the traditional route, Psilakis takes others and treats them to a dose of his particular brand of modern stroke. Burrata, an appetizer for two, is, as expected, so creamy and rich it’s pretty much the cheese equivalent of pudding. But rather than the usual olive oil and sea salt preparation, Psilakis brings in a burst of acidity and balance to the richness of the cheese with the addition of blood orange, fennel, red onion and just a touch of balsamic ($18). It’s some fine-tuning that’s unexpected, but that really makes this dish sharp. Grilled octopus, its puckered tentacles chewy and smoky and perfectly cooked, gets some Greek love with the addition of crushed new potatoes, capers, feta and a beautifully bracing anchovy vinaigrette. An arugula salad ($8) is also given a bit of a makeover with the addition of chicory, caramelized onions, aged provolone, pepperoncini, and oven-dried tomatoes. Cod is poached in olive oil and arrives the color of milk, with its silky flesh secreted under a cap of crispy skin dressed with sun-dried tomato pesto and rings of calamari and little clams ($21), while branzino is breaded and pan-fried with artichokes, fennel, and crosnes ($20), to a more meaty, masculine effect.
Dinner at Mia Dona is a truly enjoyable experience because there’s a great spirit to the food, and because the space allows for conversation that’s not drowned out by poor acoustics. But there’s one issue that did bug me: the aggressive water pourers. My table had two types of water going on. Two of us wanted sparkling and two wanted still water. We were served a bottle of each. But within minutes of pouring our first glasses, a water guy was back to refill. I took another sip, and the water guy was back. My glass was in no way in danger of going empty. Now, let me be clear, I do appreciate the dedication to water filling—my water glass at Dovetail remained empty for a good 30 minutes, which is not excusable in a 3-star restaurant, no matter how great the food. But there’s gotta be a balance between letting a glass lie empty and what’s going on at Mia Dona which seemed to be some management directive to keep filling water glasses as soon as even one sip’s taken. We felt assaulted by water pourers. Every five minutes they were back over at our table reaching across us and cutting off conversations while pouring water with such force that I was also treated to a sparkling water shower with my dinner. This was no fun. In addition, the restaurant has no system to distinguish sparkling from still, so Kathy’s sparkling was turned into flat over and over. At one point we just broke down and pleaded with the water guys: Please, can we pour our own water?
Now this is a small service point but it’s a significant one. In this day and age, bottled water is getting to be an environmental faux pas. Actually scratch that, it is not only a faux pas, it’s an environmental hazard. But if you’re gonna serve it, at least have a system so you don’t pour flat into still and vice versa. And perhaps try to be a little less forceful with the pouring? Just a thought. Water issues aside, the experience of dining at Mia Dona is one I hope to repeat, and often. There’s a great appeal to the menu, which is affordable, has enough variety for every appetite and craving, and most importantly, the food is really good.
Desserts make sure you finish the meal on a happy note, particularly the Sicilian Ice Cream Sandwich. This is a sweet brioche roll (the size of a softball) that gets sliced in half and filled with chocolate gelato, caramel, marshmallow and showered with salted cashews ($8). It’s an haute Rocky Road experience in the form of an Italian ice cream sandwich. It works quite well. Honestly, it really would’ve made a nice dessert after my lunch of leftover paccheri. But there was the issue of taking home ice cream without an appropriate freezer receptacle for traveling downtown. No worries. I’ll just bring my cooler next time. I recommend you do the same.
Neighborhood: East 50s
Reservations: Click for reservations
Chef: Michael Psilakis
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard
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