March 24, 2008 | Insatiable Critic
Reality Bites at Mia Dona
Roasted garlic for your focaccia, those pickled fries. Photo: Steven Richter
Expect standing room only at Mia Dona, given Donatella Arpaia’s East Side groupies, the impassioned fooderati fans of her Chef-partner Michael Psilakis and the nomads that invariably follow. If you’re not into grilled octopus in salty anchovy vinaigrette or that foodie favorite, warm calf’s tongue with a poached egg, there’s always the fabulous baked pacheri (layered like lasagna), just $15 for a shareable portion on a menu smartly responding to the economic meltdown, and an option on the $25 lunch. This highly successful odd-couple’s willingness to adjust menu prices for today’s pinched pocketbooks means Psilakis fans will be fighting for tables here long after they’ve abandoned higher-priced hangouts with little flex in their food costs and none in their rent.
Donatella visits media friends in the VIP middle room. Photo Steven Richter
Passionately and proudly Greek, Michael’s high-flying gentrification at Anthos of the rustic Greek cooking he serves at Kefi wowed most of the critics, especially me. (I chose it best of 2007 in New York magazine’s annual roundup of Bests. Mesmerized and energized by his own creativity, the chef can’t resist tossing in two or three or four more ingredients than most dishes need.
Hand-made pasta chitara with clams can be splendid. Photo: Steven Richter
He sent out so many extras on our first visit – salty, peppery, crumbly – everything finally seemed muddy to me and torrid to our pals. But back two weeks later, it’s clear his crumbed, fried rabbit with vinegared chips is brilliant, as is the whole wheat bigoli noodles with peppery sausage and broccoli rabe, or his signature gnudi, luscious sheep milk ricotta dumplings in truffle butter with crisp speck and fried sage. Alas, chitarra-loomed spaghetti (cut by hand on a metal “comb” – one of the best dishes on our first visit – is lost in too much sauce under a mountain of baby clams. (I always imagine he can’t resist giving me too much of everything when he knows I’m in the house, and, at this point, as a fan of the wonderfully original Onera and then Kefi, and an admirer of the now defunct Dona, I’m never going to be anonymous.)
Still, my guy and I would be happy sneaking in quietly to share the grilled and gilded octopus followed by the abundant mixed grill – lamb chop, lamb ribs, cotechino sausage, bone marrow, and salsa verde. And a sensational $13 appetizer of spiedini – quail, Merguez sausage, sweetbreads, pork involtini and a lamb meatball, each on its own wooden skewer – could be dinner for me anytime.
About those fabulous pastas. Psilakis had let the kitchen staff go when Dona closed, including the dishwasher he had trained to do his pastas so perfectly. One day, walking the mile or so from Anthos to the new Mia Dona – not yet open – on an ad lib route, he spied his noodle man man, selling umbrellas on a street corner. So now the pasta adept has his own little
pot upstairs at Anthos doing all the pasta for both restaurant. “Imagine, if I hadn’t happened to take that particular turn on that day,” he marvels.
Cannoli, ricotta ice cream.
Photo: Steven Richter
Currently on a pickling binge, the chef is getting equal yeas and nays for his pickled French fries served with a remarkable tarama aioli. The tangy, somewhat soggy potato strips gets thumbs down from us and a food professional at the next table, “very interesting” in measured enthusiasm from a gourmand friend across the room. His companion announces she’ll be back for lunch and “just have these fries.”
After these taste bud aerobics, fiercely tart lemon sorbet is almost essential.
As for the welcome at the door, the air-heads at the reservation desk managed to misplace our guests for fifteen minutes because they had us down mistakenly as “not arrived yet.” Our friends were told, “We can only seat you when all your party is here.” (The words I hate most to hear in any restaurant.) “Are you sure they aren’t sitting somewhere else in the restaurant? ”I asked Donatella. “They would never be this late.” Finally the Road Food Warrior went off to check and found them stewing unhappily in a corner never the bar. Donatella is not happy with our complaint. “But that is not our policy,” she protests. I’d say it might be a good idea to convey the policy to the puppies in charge.
206 East 58th St. between Second and Third. 212 750 8170.