Note: Click here for a later review of Mia Dona. It wasn’t as impressive the second time.
Restauranteur Donatella Arpaia and Chef Michael Psilakis have been busy. Every few months, they seem to be closing one restaurant and opening another.
Donatella Arpaia and Michael Psilakis
In less than five years, Arpaia has opened six restaurants. One closed, and she severed ties with another, leaving her with four. In less than four years, Psilakis has opened five restaurants. Two closed, leaving him with three, all partnered with Arpaia. One of them, Kefi, will be moving shortly, and they intend to open yet another restaurant in the current Kefi space.
Mia Dona is their latest creation. It was supposed to replace Dona, which was a hit, but lost its lease not long after it opened. As it was at Dona, the cuisine at Mia Dona is Italian, though interpreted through Psilakis’s Mediterranean–Greek lens. But Mia Dona is really a much different concept, despite the superficial similarities. Dona was much more elegant and nearly twice as expensive. I wasn’t wowed at Dona, though I realize many others liked it better than I did.
At Mia Dona, you almost have to pinch yourself when you see the prices. Could this be true? Appetizers are $8–13; pastas are $10–12 as appetizers or $15–17 as entrees; meat and fish entrees are $17–24; side dishes are $8–9. The wine list has plenty of decent bottles under $50. Compare this to Dona in mid-2006, where entrees topped out at $45, and a four-course dinner was $75.
The front dining room [thewanderingeater]
Of course, something has been lost, too. The tablecloths are gone, and there’s a motley assortment of unmatched china and cheap wine glasses. A single hostess has the dual role of greeting guests and checking coats. The casually dressed servers are a bit pushy and somewhat bumbling. The restaurant has been open for five weeks, so perhaps some of these things will improve.
The decor is a confused jumble: three rooms, each of which looks as if it were entrusted to a different decorator. Some of the choices are odd indeed: blonde wood paneling and zebra-skin carpeting? That’s the back room. We were in the front room, which has bare brick walls, no carpeting, and colorful enamel dishes hanging from the walls.
With as many projects as Psilakis has in flight, you have to wonder how much time he spends in any of his kitchens. Yet, I’ve seen three menus—two on the Internet (here, here) and the one I brought home with me—and all are different. So it seems he still has time to innovate, or he has able deputies who do so in his stead.
Compared to the opening menu, most of the appetizers, pastas, and seafood entrees have changed, at least to some degree, and many of them considerably. (The meat entrees have remained pretty much the same.) The appetizer I ordered, which was perhaps the most remarkable item we tried, must be a new creation, as nothing even remotely like it is on either of the Internet menus. Psilakis continutes to astonish.
We liked the bread service, which came with two contrasting warm breads and a clove of warm garlic.
Bigoli (left); Warm Calf’s Tongue (right)
When I ordered Warm Calf’s Tongue ($10), I scarcely imagined what I was in for. Yes, there’s calf’s tongue, but also mushrooms, pecorino romano, a soft poached egg. That’s what the menu said, but there is apparently quite a bit more in there, including green vegetables and chili peppers. It’s a remarkable creation, and so hearty that it could almost be an entree.
My girlfriend was impressed with Bigoli ($11), thick pasta noodles with sausage, broccoli rabe, lentils, spicy chiles, and (again) pecorino romano. At least, that’s how it was served yesterday. Tomorrow, Psilakis may come up with something else.
Roasted Chicken (left); Roasted Red Snapper (right)
Psilakis does have a way with chicken. The preparation here ($17) is a bit less artistic than the version we had at Anthos, but just as tender and flavorful.
Roasted Red Snapper ($22) was the evening’s only disappointment. The fish was dull, and the skin (which could have imparted flavor) was too tough for my knife to penetrate. The cous cous underneath it were also bland, though mussels and merguez sausage were nice.
Even with side dishes, Psilakis gives you far more than you have any right to expect at the price. Spinach ($8), which could have served five people, was luscious, with béchamel and pecorino (a cheese that recurs in multiple dishes).
At Dona, portions were on the large side, and that’s true here, despite the bargain prices. Psilakis’s cuisine skews towards the beefy and hearty, and we left a bit overfed. We took most of the spinach home, and we were so full that we skipped our usual nightcap.
The wine list isn’t long, but it has plenty of budget-friendly bottles. We settled on a 2003 Chianti ($58). The first page of the list, with a pretentious list of Donatella’s favorites (“Wine I drink while watching my friends on television”), ought to be scrapped. Servers need a bit of training on wine etiquette (hint: pour the lady’s glass first).
Four out of the five things we ordered were excellent, and both appetizers and entrees were priced a good $5 apiece lower than they needed to be at this level of quality and ambition. If the service improves, and if Psilakis continues to lavish as much attention on the menu as he has to date, Mia Dona may rank among the city’s most remarkable restaurants.
Mia Dona (206 E. 58th Street between Second & Third Avenues, East Midtown)