Mia Bella is the opposite of trendy. The single room, with pale stucco walls, an old pressed-tin ceiling and big windows framing the activity on this busy stretch of Murray Hill, harkens back to a time before restaurants had concepts and strived to be hip.
There's nothing pretentious or gimmicky here, no uber-effort to be edgy. Despite upscale attributes of white tablecloths and attentive staff, Mia Bella is a cozy, familiar kind of dining spot housed in the former Corbo's Bakery in Little Italy. That makes perfect sense because this is truly a mom-and-pop shop.
Gerti Mehmeti, who came to Cleveland in 2001 from Albania by way of New York City and Boston, mans the kitchen. After years at somebody else's stove, cooking in his own restaurant is a dream come true for the 27-year-old chef. His wife, Helga, serves as host and handles other front-of-the-house duties with help from her mother, Lisa, fondly referred to by our server as "Mama Mia." I saw her dispense hugs and kisses to customers both times I was there.
Many of the dishes Mehmeti makes have that same homey quality. I loved the tasty simplicity of an appetizer called European Delight ($8). The big bowl of grill-charred and well-seasoned eggplant, zucchini, onions and tomatoes is topped with garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce. The family recipe, which reveals this place as no typical Italian restaurant, is a favorite from Mehmeti's childhood.
Albania shares a border with Greece. Italy is just 45 miles away, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Ottoman Turks once occupied the country and left their food ways behind. The chef draws on all these culinary cultures in his approach. So there's penne, ravioli and pappardelle on the menu. Pasta verde ($12) is lush in a toss of spaghetti, olive oil, basil, spinach and garlic, brightened with a splash of lemon. Nothing fancy, it nonetheless prompts clean-plate behavior. But he also does lamb kafteds (meatballs); spicy couscous; and a cool, creamy rice pudding ($5) that our server, who's Greek, says is just like what he had for dessert on Saturday nights growing up.
Pizzas are in this Mediterranean mix. The 9-inch rounds make a nice starter for two. I prefer a thin crust, but these are thick and bready. I enjoyed my Mia Bella ($10), loaded with diced tomatoes, Kalamata olives, crumbled feta and bits of prosciutto, once I accepted it was more bruschetta than pie.
Veal braciole ($21) is a traditional Italian preparation, but the chef has his own interpretation. The thin slice of meat is wrapped around a filling of whipped ricotta, Parma prosciutto, bread crumbs, hard-boiled eggs chopped fine, Parmesan cheese and herbs. He finishes the dish with a nice red wine reduction sauce, to which he adds diced fresh tomatoes in the final minutes so they're warm but still chunky.
The grilled sea scallops ($20) are Mehmeti's own creation and don't have an obvious ethnic identity — simply put, they are wonderful. Three plump rounds of sweet shellfish nest in a mix of roasted and cubed butternut squash, sauteed escarole, and mushrooms and shallots that are doused in a white wine and tomato pan sauce.
Nothing pleased me more than the supa di pesche, or fish soup ($5). Every portion is made to order. Buttery soft sauteed calamari goes into a wine-infused and slightly spicy lobster broth along with zucchini, oregano and basil. A fistful of mussels are dropped into the pot just long enough to open up. The generous serving partnered with a roasted beet or arugula salad ($7 each) is my idea of a happy meal.
Not everything made the grade. The ribeye steak ($21) was a mediocre piece of meat on the tougher side of tender, and the garnish of sauteed peppers and olives couldn't hide the fact that it wasn't especially flavorful. Baklava, a house specialty, was soggy and limp, perhaps a day or two past its prime, and the berries decorating the plate were frozen solid. Noticing that most of the dessert was left untouched, the server decided not to put it on the bill. That impressed me and was representative of the high level of contact and care patrons receive.
I came here once and was welcomed warmly as a first timer. On my second visit I had the same waiter. He and "Mama" remembered us and made it clear they were glad my husband and I were back. I'm thinking three's the charm for a permanent upgrade to being classified as regulars. I suspect the designation comes with a hug and a kiss.
When You Go
Mon-Thu 4-11 p.m., Fri-Sun 11 a.m.-midnight
Arancini Siciliani ($9) that's crisp on the outside, soft inside and doused with tasty tomato mint sauce. These traditional fried rice balls get a change-up with ground veal and feta in place of beef and mozzarella.