March 29, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Mamma Mia Dona
Whole wheat spaghetti with seafood and above, sensational tripe. Photo: Steven Richter
Whole wheat spaghetti with seafood and above, sensational tripe. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s one of those glorious New York evenings when unexpected pleasures converge.  Mamma Maria’s tomato braised meatballs are flavorful and almost fluffy, but not effetely ethereal. And there are four for our foursome to share, almost buried in fragrant tomato sauce. Mia Dona has real energy tonight, crowded, but not packed, noisy, but we can talk, and here is Donatella Arpaia herself, greeting us in a black lace mini and six inch heels.

Baby arrugula is tossed into a fine citrus fennel salad with octopus. Photo: Steven Richter

        Even the bread basket has a personal taste of home with crunchy little tarelli – a dark twist, like half a pretzel – boiled and baked, Donatella explains - black olive-flavored (alas, that essence is elusive). Our guests have already scooped up most of the whipped ricotta in a small saucer by the time we arrive. The server with her outsize personality is focused elsewhere. I guess she’s nervous - that loud little laugh that ends each sentence. Donatella sends a double replacement.

Donatella Arpaia divides her presence between Mia Dona and Anthos. Photo: Steven Richter

        There’s nothing like the shock of a messy divorce to bring out the best in some woman. And Donatella has survived two. The crackup from David Burke and Donatella that left the chef running David Burke Townhouse, and now this rude split from partner Michael Psilakis at Anthos and Mia Dona, forcing her to find time from blossoming TV distractions to be a presence in both restaurants. She is discreet and won’t say what motivated the young and gifted unknown from Long Island who she helped launch toward stardom to sever most of their ties.  (They remain partners at Kefi uptown and Eos in Miami.)  But you won’t be surprised to learn there’s no “name” chef at the range here.

To start: unusual cauliflower soup, spicy mussels, octopus salad, luscious gnocchi

        Instead, tonight she’s focused on how she enjoyed getting into the kitchen with her Puglia-born mother to turn out this menu of home cooking, part Puglianese, part Neapolitan (like Papa), part favorites of various aunts, including her namesake, Donata.  It’s a winning story line and maybe it’s even true. What matters to me is that Zia Laura’s cauliflower soup is unlike any other I’ve tasted – not just creamy, but almost a mousse, with a small island of arugula pesto afloat. Ricotta gnocchi with sausage is a feathery miracle napped in a melt of caciocavallo cheese.  And the eggplant parmigiana is remarkably elegant in its terracotta dish, lightly dusted with flour not dredged before frying, layered with buffalo mozzarella.

Ricotta gnocchi with bits of sausage in a caciocavallo cheese melt. Photo: Steven Richter

        “At home my mother interweaves the eggplant layers but here we lay them out to make individual servings,” she tells us.  And prices are gentle: antipasti mostly $9, pastas $15 to $17, entrees $16 to $22. Mamma Maria’s pork and sweet sausage lasagna Sunday supper is just $35, including her meatballs, broccoli rabe, a green salad with artichokes and grandma’s lemon cream-filled zeppole.

Slow braised Sunday ragu made with beef brasciole on cavatelli.  Photo: Steven Richter

        With our antipasti comes an extra from Donatella for the table to share: Mussels steamed in white wine with tomato and house-cured bacon sitting on a chunk of toast that softens with the ooze. In the next round -- whole wheat spaghetti with mussels, clams, shrimp and octopus, cavatelli with what Italian families call Sunday Ragu for its slow cooked meat, and braised short rib on creamy polenta -- the centerpiece giveaway is tripe in a terracotta rectangle with a pile of garlic toast alongside.  “I know it was a risk sending tripe,” Donatella says, passing by. “I don’t know if any of you eat it.” I’m the only tripe lover at our table but it’s unusually tender and almost sweet (Mamma’s secret is frying first, than braising) so I urge everyone to taste. They devour it. We agree we’ve eaten too much to consider dessert but Zia Donata’s limoncello cheesecake with pistachio ice cream appears and we must at least taste.  It disappears.

Donatella sharing her family heritage gives life to monocromatic rooms. Photo: Steven Richter

        I recall my first visit, just after the split, when Donatella stripped away the trappings of the old incarnation and left it a long, narrow, beige alley with farm tools hung on the walls. The food was good enough, but the place without Donatella herself was almost empty, soulless and sad. With her new cookbook, “Donatella Cooks,” to promote come April and a new television show in the works, it may be a challenge to keep Mia Dona this charged.  But the kitchen is doing justice to Mamma’s cooking.  “At least now my mother has some place where she’s willing to eat,” says Donatella.

206 East 58th Street between Second and Third Avenues. 212 750 8170.  Monday through Friday lunch noon to 3 pm, Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 pm.  Friday and Saturday till 11. No lunch Saturday or Sunday.


Le Pescadeux: Trolling in New Waters

Fans of the old Le Pescadou will find their way to Le Pescadeux. Photo: Steven Richter

       I’ll be frank. I postponed writing about our evening at Le Pescadeux because I was of two minds and that seemed namby-pamby. Shall I write that it’s that sweet Village hangout you’d like near your place but maybe not worth a detour?  Indeed, I liked almost everything I tasted. We all did. We were six sharing and passing plates. “Québec Sait Faire” it says on the menu: Quebec knows how to do it. That might explain the oddly delicious walleye pike “gnocchi.” I liked the conventional mushroom gnocchi too, the smartly caramelized lamb porterhouse and the firmly al dente picci pasta with duck ragout.

Roasted calamari in a spicy Portuguese sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        It didn’t start well. A forbiddingly raucous crowd had taken over the bar, blocking the door, and glared grudgingly letting us in. And our table was turtle-slow to turn.  But the owner, Montreal-born Chuck Perley, and staff were welcoming and solicitous, offering wine as we waited, rushing to settle us at the finally available six top open to the sidewalk on a balmy night. (Later they sent out desserts.) Bruno, the agreeable sommelier, poured the wine our guests brought, not charging the usual corkage.

Tossing picci pasta with duck ragout wins all six of us. Photo: Steven Richter

        And once the bumptious congregation dispersed, this rustic little spot on Thompson Street reverted to a coziness of bare brick and wood, with copper panels below two large and misty pastel oil paintings on the wall.

No way to get a whole filet of Dorado since the kitchen has everything sized for “duets.”  Photo: Steven Richter.

        There is a theme here in the Québécoise fish soup, the sautéed Prince Edward Island mussels with chorizo, and zesty roasted calamari with picante piri piri sauce. It’s the French Canadian culinary migration down to Louisiana along with a bow to the Portuguese of Canada, according to the press release.  It’s a stretch to include marvelous mackerel seviche and thick slices of grilled bacon or even the excellent duck two ways in that voyage, but…okay, I’ll swallow it.  Even though the price is gentle (just $22 for two half orders to create what the menu calls a “fish duet”) I’m not smitten with the idea of mixing roasted cod with red pepper coulis alongside wild bass in smoked salmon sauce as an entrée. I ask for crisp Atlantic dorado, rarish, with cauliflower purée, no duet. It comes in three small pieces (duet size), the easier to overcook it, I muse, except that it’s perfect, crispy, rarish as ordered… delicious… and a $6 side of soft fries satisfies all six of us.

         It’s definitely the hangout you’d like nearby. A good spot to unite pals from uptown and down in a Villagey mood.  But probably not special enough for an arduous detour. 

90 Thompson Street between Spring and Prince near Prince. 212 966 0021 Tuesday through Friday lunch noon to 3 pm. Dinner Tuesday and Sunday 5:30 to 11:30 pm. Live music on Tuesday. Wednesday to Saturday dinner dinner 5:30 pm to 1:30 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 3 pm. Sunday Bouillabaisse all day $22.