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Mia Famiglia offers Italian-American comfort food to Cornelius



In the Northeast, Italian restaurants are as common as corner drug stores. Add pizzerias into that equation and that number resembles the level of Harris Teeters. In other words, Italian restaurants, from fine dining to fast casual, are an essential and dominant part of the culinary fabric there. The reason for this is obvious: When the major influx of Italian immigrants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they settled in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Most of these immigrants were from the southern regions of Italy (from Naples to Sicily) where red and white (marinara sauce and pasta) Italian cuisine reign. Over time, this cuisine took on a life of its own and became Americanized southern Italian.

As Charlotte experiences the influx of residents relocating from the North, the establishment of Italian restaurants in this area, mainly Americanized Italian restaurants, has grown exponentially. And why not? Everyone needs a gastronomic touchstone.

Establishing this kind of touchstone was what Rick Ragaini dreamed about when he moved to Charlotte in 2004. A job in the kitchen of Mama Ricotta brought him here, but he looked for an opportunity to open the kind of dining establishment he had worked in Jersey and Connecticut since the age of 14. In November 2005, Ragaini with co-owner Mark McGuinness opened the 10,000-square-foot, 275-seat Mia Famiglia Ristorante in Cornelius.

The restaurant is located in a shopping center that has struggled in recent years (their space once housed an expensive steakhouse, Charleston Chops). Not much has been done to the interior to obliterate the former occupant: The formal string of polished brass, multi-tiered chandeliers à la colonial Williamsburg seem off-key in an Italian restaurant. While the I-77 north exits are littered with impressive room venues, it's harder to find places attempting to ooze a little seductive warmth with servers who can turn on the charm and then turn on a dime and magically disappear. But you can find them here. Plus Mia Famiglia offers balcony seating with far away nooks that could enamor even the most strident stoic.

The menu, as conceived by Ragaini, is a mix of the standard Americanized Italian dishes -- such as veal parmigiana, penne vodka, strip steak with gorgonzola, linguine vongole, pizzas and chicken marsala -- mixed with his inventive twist on family classics. Ragaini, who pursued a chemistry degree in college, gained his culinary knowledge on the line. The mozzarella, sausage, and three varieties of raviolis are made in-house. Ragaini's knowledge of seafood also came first-hand as a line fisherman. He lived one summer on Block Island, R.I., (hence the name of the crab cakes) and worked on a long lines fishing boat where his most notable catch was a 347-pound blue fin tuna ("The size of a small car").

The Mia Famiglia kitchen excels in the starters. The antipasto fresco is a steal at $9 and enough to feed two sopranos and a tenor. Here the platter is heavy with marinated artichoke hearts, lushly grilled zucchini and red peppers, thinly sliced salami and prosciutto and sensational mozzarella. But the true starter star is Ragaini's Prince Edward Island mussels bathed in a luxurious white wine sauce (also offered with fra diavolo). There is something so primal about fresh mussels still harboring the saltiness of the ocean yet balanced by earthy wine sugar. This app comes with a full pound of tender, meaty mussels and handily competes in my taste memory with the mussels in Brussels. Now, that's saying something.

The unabashedly retro Grandma's lasagna pays homage to Ragaini's Napoli heritage and is quite possibly the best belly-slapping dish in the house with a sauce that is just-like-your-mother made -- if your mom is Marcella Hazen. (The gentleman beside me reported he comes in for that dish on a regular basis.) Another entrée, the crab cakes threesome, didn't reach high C as they arrived after over-staying their welcome on the sauté pan and were dressed in a hardly thrilling sauce. Better was the side of grits ... I mean polenta, with unexpectedly appealing mascarpone.

Ragaini's desserts are not polite, small affairs. These large plates carry the full range of gusto and interplay of flavor without selling out to cloying sweetness.

The wine list is not terribly long and might appear surprisingly short in light of the well-lit wine cellar apparent to parts of the dining room. But that cellar is not fully stocked and the some of the wines liningZ the outside shelves are not the kind to impress. Some of their wines are offered by the glass, but not many, which is too bad since Ragaini's food begs for a variety of wines during an evening.

I first heard about Mia Famiglia through persistent e-mails from devoted fans. Then my lake friends started chiming in. It seems that quite a few have heeded the Mia Famiglia's tag line: Join the family. Ragaini met his business target his first year -- not too shabby for a first time restaurateur -- and has set his eyes southward to extend his family. This seems to be a developing strategy for locally owned restaurants: develop a neighborhood retreat/showcase in the burbs and then bring the concept to the other suburban areas ringing the city.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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