Entries in Mia Dona (6)


Review Recap: Mia Dona

Did you ever meet someone at a football game, who shouted, “Even I could coach this football team?”

It happens with restaurants too. Donatella Arpaia was in partnership with two very talented chefs, David Burke and Michael Psilakis. She split up with both, so that she could do the cooking herself, despite having no training as a professional chef.

Turns out, it’s not so easy. So says Sam Sifton in a withering zero-star review of Mia Dona:

And so here is the new, chef-less iteration of Mia Dona: exactly the sort of decent, middlebrow, red-sauce Italian restaurant you’d relish if you found it in a town near the town where you grew up in the suburbs of New York. Within the five boroughs of New York City, we call that sort of restaurant satisfactory.

“Satisfactory” is Times-speak for mediocre:

The main dishes, however, go off the rails. That eggplant parmigiana is almost totally free of taste or character, a sandwich interior taken from a deli in Anywhereville. The roasted baby chicken with peppers and sweet-and-sour cipollini onions, meanwhile, has a corporate tang, a hint of mild depression: a charity-dinner entree made for 200 people.

There is competently prepared branzino, boring as protein out of a can marked “farmed white fish,” and unremarkable mussels in a sauce made of white wine, with tomato and pancetta. You’ve had that before.

And for those who have only experienced tripe-ish excellence at restaurants like Casa Mono or Momofuku Ssam Bar, Mia Dona’s version of tomato-braised beef tripe with garlic toast can serve as a complete explanation why some consider tripe to be spongy and horrid. It is both.

This was technically a demotion, as Frank Bruni had awarded two stars to Mia Dona when Michael Psilakis was in the kitchen. But after Psilakis’s departure Mia Dona became, in essence, a brand new restaurant. And according to Sifton, no longer a very good one.

We gave one star to Mia Dona, but truth be told, it was at the lower end of one star. We have no argument with Sifton’s decision to give zero.


Mia Dona (Act III)

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.

Amazingly enough, Mia Dona was a very good restaurant. We gave it two stars, and far more importantly, so did Frank Bruni in the Times. Thus ended Act I of our story.

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)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


Mia Dona


Note: This is a review under Chef Michael Psilakis, who has severed his ties with the restaurant.

A group of six food-board acquaintances had dinner this week at Mia Dona. We’d all been before and were impressed with Michael Psilakis’s inventive take on Italian cuisine.

Alas, Mia Dona has regressed to the mean. Between us, we tasted sixteen dishes. They were all competently done, but mostly routine—the kind of generic upscale Italian food that could show up on dozens of menus around town. There was nothing, say, to live up to the Calf’s Tongue appetizer I had last time, the kind of dish that makes you want to shout, “You have to eat here!”

Prices have inched up too, though that was to be expected. Mia Dona is still inexpensive by today’s standards, but the center of gravity for the entrées, formerly about $20, is now in the mid-twenties, and there’s now at least one entrée in the thirties. Dinner for six came to about $100 a head, including tax and tip. That included wine, but not a particularly expensive one.

It surely doesn’t help that Psilakis and his partner, Donatella Arpaia, are juggling about half-a-dozen projects apiece. The server said that both drop by frequently, but the point is that they’re only dropping by. Day-to-day, the restaurant is in less capable hands.

It also didn’t help that there were about three dishes on the menu they were out of or no longer serving—and that was at 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. One of our companions quipped, “What about spinach ravioli don’t you have, the spinach or the ravioli?”

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Out of our first batch of dishes (above), I liked the Bigoli (bottom left) best, with sausage, broccoli rabe, lentils, and peccorino romano. A version of this has been on the menu from the beginning. Stuffed figs (top middle) weren’t bad.

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Among the second batch, a Grilled Trout (bottom left) was the best. The skin was crisp, the fish tender, and the beet sauce elevated it above the typical treatment for this kind of fish. Lamb chops (top left) and hangar steak (bottom middle) were both solidly done, but unmemorable. Gnudi (top middle) were chewy. The server initially didn’t want to serve us Spiedini (bottom right), as they were out of some ingredients, but they whipped up an acceptable substitute.

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We had two side dishes, but neither lived up to the terrific spinach we had last time. Among the two desserts we tried, a Panna Cotta (2nd from right) was pretty good, but again, fairly typical of modern-day upscale Italian restaurants.

If you happen to be in this section of East Midtown, Mia Dona remains a solid choice, especially as it’s still a pretty good bargain, even after the recent price increases. But it’s no longer a dining destination. For that, you’ll have to visit Anthos, or wait for the next Psilakis/Arpaia project.

Mia Dona (206 E. 58th Street between Second & Third Avenues, East Midtown)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


The Payoff: Mia Dona

Today, Frank Bruni awards two stars to Mia Dona. It was a predictable outcome, given Bruni’s love of hearty Italian comfort food at economy prices, sans tablecloths. And if any chef knows how to push all of Bruni’s buttons, it’s Michael Psilakis:

At the big-hearted new restaurant Mia Dona you’ll find pasta dishes so forcefully flavored and generously portioned they could play as well at Carmine’s as at Del Posto. You’ll find a deep-fried rabbit appetizer that owes less to the grand commanders of haute cuisine than to Colonel Sanders. You’ll find meatloaf.

And if you step back to survey all of what you’re eating and all of what it’s costing — which, in the context of the restaurant’s East Side neighborhood, isn’t very much — you’ll find something else: a portrait of a rising young chef with more practicality than vanity, even though the acclaim that’s rushed his way over the last few years has given him ample reason to preen…

We win $4 on our hypothetical bet, while Eater loses $1.

              Eater       NYJ
Bankroll $81.50   $87.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   +4.00
Total $80.50   $91.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 35–15   35–15

Rolling the Dice: Mia Dona

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Mia Dona, the latest production of chef Michael Psilakis and restauranteur Donatella Arpaia. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 3-1 √√
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 8-1
Four Stars: 15,000-1

The Skinny: Frank Bruni hearts Michael Psilakis. He has awarded two stars to every one of Psilakis’s New York restaurants to date (Onera, Dona, Anthos). He also adores Kefi—he devoted two blog posts to the mere fact that it was moving—although he delegated its review to $25-and-under columnist Peeter Meehan.

Eater thinks that two stars for Mia Dona is a “hard sell,” given that Mia Dona’s casual vibe and super-low prices put it practically in Meehan’s territory. But that has never stopped Bruni before. He holds the New York Times record for two-star ratings given to $25-and-under restaurants.

Perhaps the most relevant precedent is Ureña, which won two stars from Bruni. It re-opened (after a slight make-over) as Pamplona, with food not quite as good, but prices much gentler on the pocket book. Bruni, once again, awarded two stars.

That’s precisely the situation we have here: Dona was forced to close when Psilakis and Arpaia lost their lease. They moved six blocks away, changed the name, and installed a simpler menu at much humbler prices.

All the pieces are in place for a two-star review. The only question is whether Bruni likes it as much as we did.

The Bet: Given Bruni’s obvious affection for Psilakis’s cooking, the Ureña/Pamplona precedent, and our own high opinion of the place, we are betting that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Mia Dona.


Mia Dona


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.

Got that?

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.

miadona_logo.jpgAt 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.

Bread Service

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.

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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.

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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.

miadona04.jpgEven 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)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **