12200 Mayfield Road
Cleveland, OH 44106
By Beau Cadiyo
It's long been difficult to actually get a good sandwich in Little Italy. Presti's, of course, has superb chicken salad, but for a regular sit-down place the pickings are few and far between. Thus, when I learned that the head chef had left La Dolce Vita to start his own restaurant directly across the street, I was glad – while the Dolce food was generally good, I didn't like the restaurant itself. When I heard that the chef would be making sandwiches at his new restaurant, Mia Bella, the heavens opened, angels sang and I had a vision of a promised land of delicious leavened bread and filling.
I arrived at 8:30 p.m. on the night of their soft opening, which coincided with the Little Italy Art Walk, just as a group of four were turned away at the door. Tables all along the sidewalk were packed. I strode purposefully past a perky blonde hostess and went inside; every single table was taken, and the air was full of excited conversation. Both the interior lighting and the huge, open windows made it feel light, airy and pleasant. I walked to the very end of the bar and leaned against the only open seat in the entire restaurant, which also happened to be just above an air conditioning vent. Immediately, two women started talking to me and the bartender came over to shake my hand.
Things were looking good.
Frank arrived and suggested we go outside. I was skeptical; after all, I had a perfectly good perch in a very, very crowded restaurant - how were we supposed to get a prime table on a beautiful night when so many others were being turned away? She marched outside, spotted an empty table at the very end, said a few words to the hostess and we were seated.
We waited. Water, silverware, fresh bread and herb butter were brought out at different times, as were our menus, and eventually someone arrived to take our order. Meanwhile, people walked past – friends walked by and said hello, our water glasses were filled and refilled again, and we passed the time by ignoring our cell phones and talking.
Months ago, I received a few angry messages about my B-Spot review; the gist was that I reviewed it when B-Spot was new, and that I should have cut them some slack. The thing was, the food at B-Spot was terrible and we were charged full-price. Mia Bella, on their very first night, couldn’t have been more different. While it took a little time, when my Sopa di Pesche and Frank’s Calamari arrived, both were artfully presented in elegant four-sided, high-walled bowls. From the first bite, I was impressed. Mia Bella’s soup is fresh: everything from the fish to the vegetables to the parsley tasted as if it had been caught or picked immediately before being cooked. The thick stock swirled with oil and herbs; the warm bread they served had the harder shell and soft interior indicating that it had just come out of the oven. Frank, who normally doesn’t like any seafood, had one spoonful of my soup, then two more, then used her fork to get half of a piece of fish from the bowl; her calamari was similarly delicious, although for some reason she didn’t think it should have been served with the small triangle of bread in her bowl.
Then the sandwich arrived. It wasn’t on the dinner menu, but when I’d asked the waitress she smiled, winked and said she’d see if the chef could make me one. On such an important, busy, chaotic night, I was impressed; when I actually got the sandwich, I was floored. If this was indicative of what Mia Bella can do with a last-minute sandwich request, the rest of the previously-planned entrees must be phenomenal.
The bread was a seemingly fresh-baked flat loaf of slightly leavened bread, folded over on itself. Lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and charbroiled chicken were stuffed inside with a generous slathering of pesto. The chicken was exceptionally tender and tasted of recently applied flame; there were blackened bits, but he avoided burning it beyond what was necessary for flavor. The lettuce was crisp, but not texturally overbearing. The tomatoes tasted like actual tomatoes, not like cardboard. The red onions were arranged so that I tasted their new-cut, pungent flavor in every bite, but just a little.
The standout, though, was the pesto. At first, the newly crushed basil was the most powerful flavor, but after a few bites I realized that I’d also been tasting garlic; the olive oil played a few pleasant, lingering notes and held all of the other flavors together, as good olive oil should. I’ve never had pesto which tasted this fresh, and I’ve only rarely had a sandwich where all of the parts worked so harmoniously. Within a few bites, I had a new favorite summer sandwich.
We finished just as it started raining, so we moved inside. On the back wall, two paintings in progress – detailed murals of a castle and a bridge – were lit up with spotlights, inviting patrons to see art in progress. "Life Is Beautiful" was on the widescreen. "Take a look at this belly button! What a knot! But you can't untie it, not even with your teeth! Those racist scientists tried it. Not a chance! This is an Italian belly button!" We laughed, and Frank sipped her wine. It was 11 p.m., and people still milled about, talking, laughing and finishing their food.
Little Italy has a new, outstanding restaurant in its heart. I’d suggest letting them run for a few weeks to let the chef and the waitstaff adjust to their new digs and perfect their techniques. Then you should make reservations; Mia Bella is going to be too popular to leave getting a table up to chance. Go, enjoy the experience, and taste the real sweet life.