Restaurant Week Mini Reviews Part Two: Mia Dona and Centro Vinoteca

Before extended restaurant week is over Labor Day Monday, I decided to pit two recently opened Italian restaurants against one another (Mia Dona opened in February and Centro Vinoteca in July.) I was very impressed by these superb establishments. I think the owners have given each a look, feel, and cuisine that will make many other Italian restaurateurs hide in shame behind their mama's aprons. I pretty much liked both Mia Dona and Centro Vinoteca. But I did feel that Mia Dona's restaurant week prix-fixe menu was better representative of the restaurant's everyday offerings, while Centro Vinoteca's menu was completely different. See for yourself and make a visit to both of these places serving home-cooked style, simple and rustic Italian cuisine.

Mia Dona (206 East 58th Street, 212-750-8170), Donatella Arpaia’s home-cooked Italian gem, affords a wonderful Mediterranean dining experience presided over by Greek chef Michael Psilakis, who brings forth rustic and unique Italian cooking. Simplicity and elegance rule here, from the setting to the food. A front corridor-like room of whitewashed brick walls decorated with ornamental plates brandishes beautiful Roman/Grecian faces while in the back wood paneling and zebra striped rugs create a private dining experience. Rustic presentation is a signature, exemplified by the unexpected surprise in the breadbasket of a bulb of roasted garlic. Our first course of salad and pasta set the tenor for the evening. The salad, a simple bibb lettuce salad with shaved vegetables (celery and radish), herbs (chives and parsley), provolone, and red wine vinegar was refreshing and crunchy, whereas the baked tubetti pasta with smoked mozzarella, fresh basil, and tomato sauce, was earthy and satisfying. Our main course included meat and pasta: a grilled hanger steak with broccoli rabe served on a bed of herbed ricotta and topped with a single pepperoncino; and ricotta-stuffed ravioli with spinach and pistachios in a vermouth and cream sauce. The steak was excellently prepared, complemented nicely by the bitter broccoli rabe and the unusual herbed ricotta, and was overall impressive. The ravioli dish was simple and nice, even though the pasta was hiding underneath all the spinach and pistachios with only one raviolo peeking out, I still found it very well dressed and slightly sweet. For dessert I ordered the tiramisu and was cringingly hoping for the best (my experience with tiramisu in restaurants has always been quite the letdown compared to my own recipe), but I was pleasantly surprised at how perfect it was. The tiramisu with espresso gelato was decadent, homey, and very close to my definition of tiramisu. My only caveat was that it was a tiny piece. My friend enjoyed the equally as good gianduja semifreddo with dark chocolate sauce and hazelnut brittle. Ah! What a decadent time we did have.

At Centro Vinoteca (74 East 7th Avenue South, 212-367-7470) in the West Village, Food Network personality and chef Anne Burrell presents bold-flavored Italian dishes with a separate piccolini (small plates) menu for those interested in quick bites with their sips of wine in the modern and slick duo-level enoteca and restaurant. We started our late afternoon lunch with two excellent glasses of wine: a Bastianich rosé and a Piemonte gavi di gavi. We ordered two unique appetizers; one was a trio of fried zucchini, chicken liver pate with balsamic onion on bruschetta, and a truffled deviled egg; and the other was a parmesan sformato with arugula and red pepper ragu. The trio was simple and hearty, but the liver pate was very minerally and almost unpalatable. The sformato, a parmesan custard akin to soufflé, was interesting but did not quite hit the spot. For our main course we selected the eggplant involtini with roasted tomato sauce stuffed with ricotta and the tagliatelle with grilled corn, green beans, and rock shrimp in cream sauce. The eggplant was much like a basic eggplant rollatini with a nice smoky flavor emanating from the roasted tomato sauce. The tagliatelle was perfectly prepared, accented nicely by the summer vegetables of green beans and corn with delicate pieces of succulent rock shrimp. For dessert we would have enjoyed the peach short cake, but the waitress informed us that the restaurant was all out, so instead we had the hazelnut cake with nutella mousse and the sweet tarallucci with salty caramel. The cake was nice and moist, and of course anything with nutella is good. The taralucci were little sugar cookies accompanied by a bowl of caramel for dipping. The cookies were nicely enjoyed with an order of espresso. I think I would have preferred a fruit dessert, but the cookies and cake brought out the Italian picture of sitting at a café and watching the passersby, which is exactly what the restaurant offers, a great place to see and be seen in the Village while enjoying a good glass of wine with bites of sumptuous little things.

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