When one Italian restaurant closes, another opens. Graham Duncan, the corporate executive chef for Alexandria Restaurant Partners (ARP), remembers when he first heard the rumors that Carluccio’s in Old Town closed. “We were on the phone and got in touch with the landlord, and in pretty short order I started sketching out the menu that afternoon,” he says.
Dave Nicholas, a partner in ARP, said he wanted the new restaurant to showcase “gritty Italian” cuisine. Duncan recalls saying, “I don’t know what gritty Italian is,” to which Nicholas replied, “I don’t either, but we’re going to figure it out. … The only thing I do know is that it’s going to have square pizza.”
Square pizza became the cornerstone of what is now Mia’s Italian Kitchen, which opened on King Street near the waterfront in late April. Duncan describes their take on “gritty Italian” as “a little bit of Americanized Italian peasant food. … It’s not like red sauce Italian,” he says. “We sort of took some cues from authentic Italian and then we took some cues from restaurants that we know up in New York and New Jersey, and just built the Italian restaurant that we wanted to go to.”
The menu features housemade pastas, steaks, Mediterranean-inspired seafood, traditional desserts, a family-style brunch and of course, square pizza, which carries some nostalgia for Dave Nicholas. “That’s what his Sicilian grandmother used to make,” Duncan says. “If you ever spend any time in some of the older neighborhoods up in New York, you can actually order something off the menu called an ‘old fashioned’ or a ‘grandma’ pie, and it’s a square steel pan pizza, but it’s not risen like a Sicilian. It’s a thin crust, but it’s baked in a pan.”
The square pizzas are baked in a custom Marra Forni brick oven. “I started saying, OK, if I’m going to be cooking square pizza, that’s going to be difficult in a round oven,” Duncan explains. “So Marra actually came up with a custom design for us and we’ve got an oven with a rectangular deck and sort of a rectangular dome to it.”
The oven is painted Alfa Romeo red (Duncan said they felt Ferrari red was too flashy) and it’s the focal point of the casual downstairs dining room. There’s also a salumi station, a peninsular marble bar, blonde leather chairs and red floor-to-ceiling windows that open to the sidewalk patio.
Upstairs is a little quieter, with a sofa lounge, brick walls and long red velvet drapes. “It’s got kind of a classic, lived-in look,” Duncan says.
Overall, Duncan says guests find the space comfortably familiar. “Everybody says that the feel of the restaurant is how they felt if they’ve been on vacation in Europe,” he explains. “Just some place that you sort of stumble on that’s been there for generations, which I think is exactly what we were going for.”
Mia’s is the second Italian concept for the restaurant group, which includes Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza and Tap, but Duncan says it will have its own personality. “They’re very, very distinct,” he says. “It’s a little bit more vibrant. It’s a little bit more urban.” // Mia’s Italian Kitchen: 100 King St., Alexandria