AN ITALIAN RENAISSANCE
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHT BY ROBIN SUBAR
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHT BY ROBIN SUBAR
Imagine, for a moment, that the Fates—pushy little deities that they are—somehow persuaded you to take a totally different career path. Let’s say that you, wholly ignoring common sense and financial prudence, decided you were born to cook and run restaurants for a living. And, by some miracle, you defied the odds and hit it really big, the way Scott Harris has.
Like Harris, you opened a cozy little Roman-inspired restaurant in Chicago back in 1992, called Mia Francesca. It presented something fresh: an authentic taste of an Old World Roman trattoria, which diners positively purred over with the same repressed desire that Gregory Peck showed Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Imagine that visitors fell for your concept so hard that you were invited to open a legion of Mia Francesca outposts across Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.
Decades pass. It’s the 2020s now. You’ve diversified your restaurant portfolio with other concepts—taco and tequila bars, Greek tavernas, etc.—but you wake up one morning, overjoyed that people are actually going out to eat again, and decide to recast your original baby: Mia Francesca concept that started it all. Now the dilemma: What do you preserve and what do you remold?
Harris’ delicious answer to that conundrum can now be found in St. Charles, where chef Pete DeRuvo has helped launch a hell-a-fun new concept called Mio Modo, which translates as “my way” in Italian.
Harris and DeRuvo, who have a raffish streak to them, love laying on the cheekiness. At Mio Modo, the menu is stamped with cursive little aphorism— “formaggio is my love language” and “garlic always”—and then bookended with a “sign-language” glossary that demystifies what 10 different hand signals actually mean when Italians use them.
Taking a cue from the Roman poets of old, Mio Modo leans into the belief that we all enjoy classic Italian cooking, especially when it is served with a side of Instagram-worthy circuses. Order the house’s mozzarella app and your server, gloved in slick black gloves, will escort a brass cart to your table and proceed to prepare the cheese from scratch before your eyes.
Get your camera ready. It’s a clever little magic act: Hot water is poured over cheese curds, as your waiter molds and stretches the cheese as if it were a creamy-colored pizza dough. The mozzarella is then bundled back into a silky baseball-shaped sphere and topped with seasonal fixings, which run the gamut from oil-soaked tomatoes to a pine nut gremolata.
At the same time, Mia Francesca devotees will be relieved that Harris has preserved some of his customers’ all-time favorite treats. No one’s tinkered with Nonna’s meatballs, which are even fluffier than I remembered them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that dish’s glorious mix of marinara and ricotta—remember to smoosh it together until it’s the color of a good vodka sauce—can now be sopped up with slices of crusty ciabatta from the Michelle Baking Co. in Franklin Park.
The beef carpaccio, which is shaved so thin you’re liable to get a paper cut by just looking at it, is gilded with the very same jumble of mushrooms, capers, tomatoes, and avocado that you remember from Mia Francesca. A few pastas—including spaghetti frutti di mare—remain untouched as well, but it’s ultimately the new dishes that Harris and DeRuvo have been sprinkled throughout the menu that proves this is no cookie-cutter rerun.
Consider, for example, Mio Modo’s decision to ditch that beloved but ultimately cliched opening salvo of cheese and olive oil in favor of two treats: a bowl of fresh olives and tiny nuggets of Parmesan cheese drizzled with a house-made saba.
Back in the Old World, saba tends to be crafted in giant batches by reducing unfermented vats of grape juice squeezed straight from the vine. At Mio Modo, DeRuvo reduces down Red Fire grapes with sugar and a dash of Lambrusco until it’s versatile syrup, which looks as black as a slick of balsamic but offers a subtler plum-like sweetness. You’ll understand saba’s extraordinary versatility by ordering our favorite Mio Modo offering: Venetian-inspired pork ribs, which are dressed with saba and an 11-spice dry rub, before they’re roasted in an oven and crisped up in a fryer. The results are a viscous, two-napkin Italian riff on bbq ribs that are downright dazzling. Should you start with the ribs, Mio Modo’s cacio e pepe is a great follow-up, counterbalancing all those sticky notes with a creamy one-two combo of parm and pepper.
Anyone who’s partial to veal marsala, as we are, will be delighted to find that Pete’s opts against flat cuts of veal scallopine for thicker chunks veal tenderloin, which are served in a brothy marsala sauce topped with spinach leaves. The showstopper from the seafood side of the menu is a de-boned branzino that’s “anointed,” as DeRuvo likes to say, with olive oil, blistered cherry tomatoes, capers, and garlic slivers.
Suffice to say, there isn’t a secret Italian hand signal that fully captures the unbridled la dolce vita vibe of Mio Modo, unless you simply do as the Americans do and extend an open palm forward, fingers outstretched, and offer Pete and Scott a hearty handshake. They’ve done something special, after all, and produced sequel that’s every bit as fun and delicious as their star-making original.
Leave it to the Mio Modo team to name all of their cocktails after Italian stars, gangsters, singers, and the occasional sports car. The drinks are not only great ice-breakers, they’re as smooth as a Sinatra lyric.
Rudolph Valentino Rum Punch:
It’s been said that young Rudy Valentino was so hyperactive that he was nicknamed “Mercury,” a nod to that most fleet-footed of gods. Nothing, it was argued, could slow the man down, but there’s a good chance this dangerously tasty summertime mixer—Amaro, rum, pineapple juice plus muddled strawberries and berry syrup—might have done the trick.
It’s exactly the sort of drink Henry “Goodfellas” Hill would’ve ordered for Karen during their lavish dinnerdate to see Henny Youngman. It’s simultaneously smooth—Sazerac rye, house-made limoncello—and appropriately frothy, thanks to a top layer of whipped up egg-white and touch of simple syrup.
Mio Modo is located at 200 South Second Street in St. Charles. Call 630.587.8221 or visit miomodo.com.