Northern Italy breathes through Mio, in the Venetian masks on the brick walls, the aroma from the kitchen and the mural of the heavens that stretches along the curved ceiling, complete with harp-strumming cherubs. Denis Grabocka and his wife, Eva, have owned Mio, once Café Amore, for 14 years. Some of the staff have worked there for close to 10 years, and there is a large following of loyal patrons who have dined there since the smell of the first pizza wafted out of the kitchen.
Envision a selective menu featuring classic dishes that inspire incredible loyalty, but also introduces lesser-known yet breathtaking North Italian specialities. Picture a vibrant but cozy interior, lined with bottles of wine and, in a few months, a shaded patio that hugs the curve of the building, which can be screened in during the hottest and coldest months and left open on fine days.
Mio is, as any American-based Italian restaurant, a mix: Italian tradition blended and seasoned with what Americans expect to see and taste. Mio is Café Amore: redesigned, modernized and simplified so that only the really, really good stuff remains.
After four years in Albania reacquainting themselves with European cuisine, Denis and Eva have big dreams for Mio. Contrary to popular assumption, by the way, their Albanian roots are a huge advantage when it comes to the art of fine Italian food. For centuries, Albania and Italy have passed cultural tidbits back and forth across the Adriatic Sea—leading to twin cuisines. In fact, many, many Italian restaurants in the States are owned by an Albanian, or rather, an Albanian family.
Real flowers sit on every table, and a basket of garlic knots is placed beside them with a bowl of marbled olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette for dipping. We indulge in the house red, a bold Cabernet Sauvignon. The garlic knots are warm, one for each of us, and they’re made from scratch in-house. Dieters beware: They’re addictive. Sit, they say seductively. Snack. You didn’t want to lose those five pounds anyway.
Eva suggests that a restaurant’s true spirit is revealed in their appetizers. Formaggio al Forno ($9) is a traditional starter served warm and featuring goat or feta, both exceptionally creamy cheeses that easily melt like fondue. Mio’s oven-baked mix of goat and feta cheeses are spiced up with hunks of dry pepperoni, cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives and pepperoncini folded in. It isn’t stringy, but soft and creamy with a healthy sprinkling of capers and oregano for herby warmth, in addition to drizzled olive oil and sambuca liqueur. Each ingredient adds its own complexities. Served with a twice-baked crunchy roll for dipping—or scooping if you’re starving or shameless—Formaggio al Forno is an antidote to winter nights; a sweater-wearer, a hugger. Feelgood food.
The word “crostini” brings to mind something dainty and bite-sized, but the Flank Steak, Gorgonzola & Onion Jam Crostini ($11) fills the plate. It’s Texas-sized, four thick slices of bread piled with flank steak and onion jam, finished with a Pollock splash of balsamic. The flank steak has a nice char without any tough chewiness; flank steak is so thin that achieving this exact texture takes intense precision, with a split-second margin of error. Gorgonzola is a nice pairing, but the star here is the onion jam. Onions are caramelized in butter, brown sugar and brandy for a fresh, tender taste, the true soul of this dish.
If you migrate from appetizers to entrees, you’ll be rewarded by Farfalle Modo Mio ($12). Farfalle is also known as bow tie pasta, and it comes sauteed with pancetta, garlic, mushrooms and artichoke hearts in a creamy vodka sauce with a touch of marinara. Frankly, it’s mouthwatering. Tender artichokes add a juicy tang, and every so often pancetta peeks through. Though this is our solitary taste of marinara sauce, it is a pleasant surprise. Marinara is made at Mio three times a week in 60 gallon batches. The prep work that produces everything, even the tablespoon of marinara in my pasta, is hidden behind the kitchen door. We never see it, but it’s the sort of magic that shines through every bite.
Dating back to the Roman Empire, Porchetta ($17) is pork belly, stuffed with seasonings and slow roasted. They say it was Emperor Nero’s favorite food. Mio presents a thick slice of pork belly folded around a pocket of warm herbs: sage, rosemary, garlic, parsley, basil and pistachios. It has been cooked with wine and plated with roasted cipollini onions, asparagus and fluffy pesto gnocchi. The pork is tender with a crunch from the seasoned outer layer. I can’t say how it would compare to a Porchetta sandwich purchased from a street vendor in Rome, and who knows what Nero would have thought of it, but to me, Mio’s upscale Porchetta is a true taste of history, beautifully presented and immensely enjoyed.
Denis and Eva are particularly proud of their pizza. From the hand-tossed crust up, it is made from scratch onsite. Old Man & The Sea Pizza ($10/$14/$16) is puttanesca on a pizza. Incredibly balanced, it’s evenly topped with Rio Mare marinated tuna, baby shrimp, sliced fresh garlic, capers, black olives, pepperoncini, Sicilian oregano and mozzarella cheese. Salt appears as a refreshing character of its own, shining in every bite. It’s in the capers, in the tuna, in the olives. It isn’t used and abused as an attempt to add flavor to a dead dish. It’s sublime.
Save room for dessert, also made in-house. Tiramisu ($5) is a rite of passage for any diner at an Italian restaurant. Mio serves it in a parfait glass, abstract cocoa dusting the plate. It’s whimsical, delightful and enticing. The flavors are delicate without being lost. It isn’t soggy with too much alcohol or chunky with too many ladyfingers. Though the separate layers look distinct, they blend on the palate for a light finish. Chocolate and white chocolate curls finish it with an extra touch of love.
The only whimsy in the Italian Cream Cake ($6) is the art deco plate it’s served on, checkered with caramel and chocolate. Why an art deco plate? Is there a meaning behind it? Is it the last plate in the drawer? I have no clue, but it’s a great touch, and I love it. Italian Cream Cake has coconuts and pecans folded in and, unlike Tiramisu, it’s dense and textured with curls-on-curls of deliciously chilly cream cheese frosting.
Mio has achieved the tender balance of traditional and flashy. The food is comforting with distinct, individual flare. Everything is presented thoughtfully, in squares made of asparagus stalks or in parfait glasses for an elevated display of layers. The food keeps you engaged, delighted, surprised.
Italian food is heavily steeped in both tradition and expectation on all sides. Pleasing native Italians and Americans at once is a balancing act. It takes time to achieve it. What can I say? The rebirth of Mio from Cafe Amore is a success. Come for lunch. Cater an event there. Have a party in the upstairs room. Sip a glass of wine on a fine day on the patio. Enjoy life at Mio. Don’t fill up on garlic knots.
Mio by Amore Vinoteca & Italian Kitchen
- Mon.–Fri.: 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
- Sat.: 12 p.m.–10 p.m.
- Sun.: 11 a.m.– 9 p.m.
Where: 6505 W. Park Blvd., Plano TX, 75093
More: 972.781.0310 | miobyamorevinotecaitaliankitchen.com
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s December 2016 issue.