“My mother doesn’t really like the food in my restaurants,” says Donatella Arpaia. “She didn’t even like the food in my father’s restaurants. She only likes her food,” referring to the cuisine of Puglia, where her mother grew up. But now, with the re-opening of Mia Dona, Arpaia’s mother finally cleans her plate at one of her daughter’s restaurants–that’s because the food is her food, literally.
Mia Dona’s new menu is homey Puglian, the kind of food Arpaia grew up eating. After Michael Psilakis left Mia Dona, Arpaia decided, in effect, to replace him with her mother and aunts, who came to the restaurant everyday while it was closed, teaching the kitchen staff how to make a long-simmered Sunday ragu, how to make meatballs, and homemade pasta. Now they are coming in every other day to make sure the food is right. Arpaia calls them the inspectors.
“And then the New York Times says, ‘Mia Dona opens without a chef!'” says Arpaia, referring to this article. “What do you think most of these kitchens are running on? If Chef owns five restaurants, you think he’s cooking the food?” She goes on to say that opening a place focusing on ultra-simple food would have been much more difficult with a new executive chef. “I really did not want this food translated, and chefs can’t do that. They have to translate. They have to reinvent.”
The new Mia Dona menu contains nothing over $19, offering dishes like Aunt Laura’s winter greens soup, meatballs braised in tomato sauce, burrata ravioli (Arpaia’s invention), orechiette with Sunday ragu, and octopus casserole with spicy tomato sauce and olive. Arpaia calls it la cucina povera, or, essentially, peasant cooking. “Since the economy happened, people are hyper-aware of what they’re spending,” she says. “They don’t want food that’s fussy, that’s reinvented. And it happens that that’s perfect for the food I’m doing. It defines comfort and is still healthy, wholesome, and good.”
Asked about her favorite places to eat Italian other than her own restaurant, Arpaia immediately names Bianca, for the gnocchi fritto and the lasagna, and Esca, for the crudo. Pizza? Arpaia’s a Keste partisan all the way. “I love Neapolitan-style pizza, and to me, right now, Keste is the best by far.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 18, 2009