Imagine your parents had emigrated from America to another country back in the 1960s. What kinds of recipes would they have taken with them? Rumaki (bacon-wrapped water chestnuts with chicken livers), Quiche Lorraine or Chicken Divan? If they left anytime before 1975 -- the year the Cuisinart food processor was introduced and revolutionized home cooking -- chances are the recipes they took with them are not what Americans are eating today. Serving rumaki as an appetizer today would be considered retro.
The other side of the equation, of course, is whether your parents could find the recipe's ingredients in their new home. If they could not, they would probably substitute here and there, making adjustments for taste differences along the way. Anyone who has lived abroad and tried to make American cookies knows the taste challenges of substituting other sugars for brown sugar.
So what about the recipes immigrants brought to this country? For the last several generations of Americans, Italian food has been defined as the foods of Southern Italy brought to the US by the influx of Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century. Many of these immigrants were Sicilian and settled in the NYC area.
What kinds of dishes typify Sicilian cuisine circa 1900? Fresh food with a balance of sweet and acid. Ingredients include tomatoes, olive oil, pasta, fresh fruit and seafood. With its rich volcanic soil, saffron and fennel, which grew wild on the hillsides, were used as well. Sicily also had a few conquerors during its history: Arabs ruled there for a while, as did the Greeks. So, the native cuisine of Sicily includes elements of these exogamous palates: raisins, pine nuts, sheep cheese ricotta.
Of course, Sicily is known for elements other than cuisine and, even now, the idea that the island is still dominated by organized crime is hard to overcome. After all, where did Michael Corleone (The Godfather) go for protection?
Small, family-run Italian restaurants, especially Sicilian restaurants, around the NYC area are commonly frequented by people with these kinds of Sicilian ties. Restaurateur Salvi Giuliano acknowledges that in his family's Brooklyn restaurant, they had many such customers, including one guy who turned out to be an FBI informant.
Giuliano grew up in the restaurant business but decided to move to Charlotte after 9/11. At that time, he was in finance, but the events of that day made him take a second look at his life. His older brother had relocated to Charlotte previously and said his new home was experiencing burgeoning growth, particularly from New Yorkers. In April 2005, Giuliano opened the 90-seat Mio Posto, or "my place."
Mio Posto, tucked back in a corner off Highway 51 (the site had been La Strada Pizza & Pasta for eons before it moved to Lake Lure and Union County), is one of those functional places with dark wood, high-backed booths lining cream colored walls and nondescript tables dotting the middle.
The "more traditional than authentic" recipes are from the Giuliano family and time-tested in their Brooklyn restaurant. Chef Nathan Martin follows the recipes for menu items but is given a free hand on the specials.
A family feeling is what you will find at Mio Posto. With Giuliano at his restaurant are his father Ralph, mother Stella, and two younger brothers, Ralph and Danny. Ralph Giuliano schmoozes the room and has an uncanny ability to remember faces. I doubt anyone could be a stranger on a return visit.
The kitchen clicks along confidently. Warm bread and olive oil are brought out, but we wished for more with the mussel appetizer. One of the signature dishes is the fried rice ball, also known as arancini, a Sicilian specialty. Although the menu listed these as being filled with meat, mozzarella and peas, what was delivered to my table was devoid of meat and pea filling -- although the marinara sauce had meat. In any case, the idea of a breaded and fried starch strikes me as more of a street food than an appetizer.
Much better were the entrees. The linguine with white clam sauce was a simple dish filled with ribbons of pasta and a lush clam sauce. Garlicky shrimp arrived wondrously tender, lazing on a bed of pasta flecked with herbs. I enjoyed the crispy Caesar salad, laden as it was with an overly generous amount of dressing. However, my bigger complaint is the lack of freshly grated cheese.
Desserts are dressed. The lemon sorbet, sitting in a lemon (made in Italy), provided a satiating end to the meal while the cannoli, a Sicilian specialty, was piped with sweetened cream (bereft of a citric zing).
Also on hand are pizzas, lasagna and manicotti; the pasta section is a matrix where you can pick the type of pasta and sauce. A small list of wines, including a house wine, are offered by the glass, carafe, bottle. While dinner entrees range from $10 for a pasta dish to $19 for the seafood linguine, the kid's menu is $5 and the lunch buffet is $8.
Mio Posto dishes, most well-executed, exist in the familiar land of Italian (albeit Sicilian) immigrant food. It's sort of like eating at home -- if your family's Italian, that is. But no worries, if you aren't: at Mio Posto, everyone is family.
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, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail email@example.com.
8700 Pineville Matthews Road (Tower Place) 704-541-6955. Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 11am until 9pm; Friday 11am until 10pm, Saturday 4:30pm until 10pm and Sunday 4:30pm until 9pm. Closed Monday. AmEx, Visa, MC, Dis.