Note: Mia Dona’s luck finally ran out. The restaurant closed in August 2011.
Mia Dona is a luckier restaurant than most. With the talented but attention-deficited chef Michael Psilakis behind the stoves, and the talented but over-committed owner Donatella Arpaia running the house, there was always a danger that it would seem like a throwaway.
Having launched the restaurant successfully, the danger was that Arpaia and Psilakis would direct their attention to other projects, and the restaurant would drift. Sure enough, it did. Upon a re-visit a mere months later, we found Mia Dona far less exciting. It was now serving “the kind of generic upscale Italian food that could show up on dozens of menus around town.” Thus ended Act II.
Most similarly situated restaurants would either be dead, or would begin a long slide into mediocrity and irrelevance. But at the end of September 2009, Arpaia and Psilakis had an amicable divorce (though they are still partners in three other restaurants). She closed briefly for some much needed renovations, softening the original kitschy, overwrought décor. Most curiously, she re-opened without a named chef, choosing instead to hire cooks she trained herself, along with her mother and her aunts. Thus begins Act III.
The cuisine is that of Apulia, in southern Italy, the region Arpaia’s family is from. She says that this is the cuisine she always wanted to serve at Ama, a restaurant in Soho that she was briefly associated with about four years ago, and that has since closed. As restauranteur and de facto chef at Mia Dona, she finally gets to do it her way.
If you are looking for the thrilling creations that made Act I of Mia Dona such a compelling restaurant, you will be disappointed. They don’t exist. What you get is a safe list of Italian classics that are well made, along with a service team that is far more polished than before.
With Mia Dona now being primarily a neighborhood place, the staff cannot afford the arrogance and slapdash service we have occasionally experienced at Arpaia’s restaurants. The crowd is younger than we remembered it, and they are not treated as if they are oh-so-fortunate to have the privilege of dining here.
Ms. Arpaia was not there personally on the Friday night we visited, and we suspect she seldom is; but the folks to whom she has entrusted the restaurant seem to know what they are doing. As before, she keeps prices remarkably low, with the maximum entrée price at $19. That is a bargain nowadays.
Neither the Meatballs ($9; above left) nor the Seafood Spaghetti ($17; above right) was especially memorable; they were done correctly, that is all.
The same is true of the Eggplant Parmigiana ($17; above left). We loved the Baby Chicken ($17; above right): the whole bird cooked simply but perfectly.
We had no trouble getting a reservation the same day, but the place filled up in a hurry. There seemed to be only one server for the entire front room. Fortunately, she was extremely competent; Donatella had hired wisely.
We doubt that we’ll be back to Mia Dona unless we happen to be in the neighborhood, but we are happy to report that it is friendly, dependable, and apparently successful in its newly minted, much lower ambitions.
Mia Dona (206 E. 58th Street between Second & Third Avenues, East Midtown)