Many people's image of an Italian trattoria comes directly from the Cher film Moonstruck: a small, family-run place with checkered tablecloths, Dean Martin crooning softly and a genial host who knows exactly what pasta you need to suit your mood.
But Youssef Nafaa, the owner of Mia Bella, seems to have been inspired not by Cher's movie, but by her Gothic mail-order catalog, Sanktuary. Cast-iron candleholders and sconces decorate the walls; black napkins and bread baskets grace the tables, which are squeezed tightly together (the better, perhaps, to make room for the huge bar, which occupies nearly half the restaurant). Remember the old Monty Python sketch about a theme restaurant that emulated a dungeon?
At lunch, the sweet, knowledgeable waitstaff appears to be an average group of attractive young people. But at night, they metamorphose into pink-haired, tattooed beings more appropriate to the setting; they're still sweet and knowledgeable, but somehow, unsettling -- perhaps because it's a look seen more often at Switchblade Symphony concerts than in downtown trattorias. Perhaps the alternativeness of it all will put off blue-haired opera patrons; but Mia Bella doesn't seem to be aiming for that crowd anyway. Entrées top out at a highly reasonable $14.95, and the place is open until 2:30 a.m. on weekends. I suspect the late-night crowd will feel right at home.
As at many new restaurants, the appetizers outshine the entrées. (Perhaps this is to be expected: Nafaa also owns Mia Luna, the successful tapas restaurant.) The breathtakingly good grilled calamari ($4.95) provide a terrific break from their ubiquitous fried cousins. The whole squid was grilled just enough to be startlingly tender, then served under a cool salad of tomato and arugula, and dressed with a basalmic vinaigrette.
Mia Bella's slogan is "Italian with a twist," and perhaps it's a reference to dishes such as strudel di funghi e formaggio ($4.95). I'm not altogether certain that wild-mushroom strudel with goat cheese is a dish native to Italy (where's Marcella Hazan when you need her?). But no matter: Whatever its origin, the dish is terrific. Crisp pastry surrounds a rich mushroom-and-goat cheese filling; it's indulgent and delicious.
Tomato basil bisque ($2.95) was equally rich, and it included a surprise: a big blob of melted mozzarella, ready to be swirled through the soup. No, it's not a surprise you want at a business lunch -- those dangly little strings of cheese are awkward as all get-out -- but if you're not dead set on impressing your companion, the taste is worth the annoyance.
A wild-mushroom risotto of the day ($4.95) balanced deep mushroom flavor against green and pink peppercorns, which brought a crunchy burst of heat with each spoonful (and there were lots of spoonfuls: Serving sizes are generous). My favorite entrée, though, was the crespelle di pollo e spinaci ($8.95), tender herb crepes stuffed with chicken, mozzarella, spinach and other vegetables, then bathed in an elegant sage lemon butter sauce. On my first visit, about half the tables had ordered the crepes, and in this case, the majority was right. They were wonderful.
Alas, if only the meat entrées had been as good. The veal in vitello alla Mia Bella was fork tender, and there were lots of sautéed portobellos, and it all rested on a bed of good risotto -- but the sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and marsala was achingly sweet. It wouldn't have been out of place spooned on top of ice cream.
Normally, osso buco is made with a veal shank; here, the osso buco di capretto ($11.95) translates as lamb, braised in red wine with shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and port with garlic-leek mashed potatoes. The change violates the spirit of the dish. The meat should be so tender that it falls off the bone if you so much as look at it, but I stared at this version for a good minute, with no reaction. It had a good lamb flavor but desperately needed a bit -- okay, a lot -- more braising.
Desserts are comforting stuff, not at all what you'd expect, given the decor. Chocolate Oblivion ($4.95) manages to be a good variation on the typical death by chocolate, with crunchy chocolate toffee bites on top. The housemade (and classic Italian) cinnamon apple tart was served warm with a phyllo dough base, and quite good.
Lunch is, naturally, less ambitious than dinner, but pleasant. For $6.95 you're allowed to mix and match: one pasta shape, two main ingredients from a list of 11, and the sauce of your choosing (tomato basil, olive pesto, puttanesca, roasted jalapeño cilantro -- more "Italian with a twist"). Linguine with mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and Alfredo sauce worked fine, with a subtle hint of garlic informing the rich Parmesan cream sauce.
Overall, I like Mia Bella. But let me close by venting two minor gripes.
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One: I called to check the dress code and was told "snappy casual" (whatever that means). Snappily dressed, I walked into the restaurant to discover the staff dressed in jeans and T-shirts (black, of course). I resent being told to dress better than a restaurant's waitpeople.
Two: Wine is served in stemless wine glasses. This was a new one on me, and I asked my waiter why. "I guess we just wanted to be different," he replied.
Stemless wineglasses? Let's nip this trend in the bud. I spent most of the evening mulling the possibility that clumsy delivery men had broken the stems off all the restaurant's glasses. It didn't occur to me that people would serve wine that way on purpose.
Mia Bella Trattoria, 320 Main (at Preston), (713)237-0505.