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    Categories: Eat & Drink

First Taste: Sicilia Mia

Everyone’s talking about it. Sicilia Mia (no website) is, apparently, the Italian restaurant most of Salt Lake has been waiting for and I’m late to the party.

Distinctly unspectacular from the outside—Sicilia Mia is a bland storefront in an unattractive strip shopping mall—the small restaurant is always crowded. We made dinner reservations and still had to wait 40 minutes for a table, which means standing on the sidewalk next to the al fresco diners. Every ten minutes or so, a server or the owner would pop their heads out the door to apologize and there is a “Now Hiring” sign propped in the window.

At a big, professionally designed restaurant from a well-financed owner, this would have annoyed me, but Sicilia Mia is small, family-owned, unpretentious and inexpensive, so my expectations were not the same. Actually, because Sicilia Mia has gotten so much hype, including being called the “best Italian food in Salt Lake,” my expectations were low. I expected the usual one-note red sauce, overcooked pasta and powdered garlic flavor you’re served at many Salt Lake Italian restaurants.

Color me biased. Color me snobby. Color me surprised.

Arancinette—the crisp, deep-fried orbs breaking open to a gooey rice, sauce and cheese interior—were good, better than more expensive ones I’ve eaten at upscale Italian restaurants. That shouldn’t really be a surprise, this is truly a family-owned restaurant, and fried rice balls are not a sophisticated food. Surely they originated with an Italian mamma faced with leftovers and a hungry family. They are an essential Sicilian food and there are other authentic Sicilian dishes on the menu, in addition to the familiar Italian dishes (Caesar salad, bruschetta, carpaccio) that are must-haves for any middle America Italian restaurant.

Pollo involtini, for instance, chicken pounded thin and rolled around a filling studded with pine nuts and raisins, shows the Eastern Mediterranean’s influence on Sicilian cooking. Out there in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily was a natural crossroads between North Africa, Europe and the Near East and those cultures influenced the island’s seafood cuisine. Pasta Palermitana is dressed with anchovies, red chili and tomatoes (Sicilians were early adopters of the North American oddity introduced by the Spaniards), Spaghetti Trapanesi is typically Sicilian, with garlic, capers, olives and tomatoes (I did wish for better olives; these were Lindsay-style) and Fettucine Sicilia Mia is packed with chunks of fish, clams and mussels (I think.) It came to the table flaming.

The menu is full of such dramatic presentations—the famous pasta carbonara is made in a hollowed wheel of Parmigiana Reggiano softened by flaming with alcohol. The pasta, egg and pancetta are tossed into the wheel and mixed quickly, the server scraping the sides of the cheese to incorporate as much as possible. The tableside drama is a little corny, like fifties Continental food, but it’s also a lot of fun—the place is so small that the spectacle entertains all the guests. The result on the plate was a much stiffer dish than you would make at home, and incredibly rich. It’s a version that makes you support Calvin Trillin’s campaign to make pasta carbonara the national dish for Thanksgiving. 

Sicilia Mia isn’t perfect. I was disappointed in lasagne—the flavors were good, but I thought it was over-sauced so the layers slid around instead of being a laminated stack. I probably should have let it set for ten minutes or so. And I was surprised at the absence of caponata on the menu. On the other hand, some dishes, like the simple spinaci all burro, are stellar. Spinach was another Saracen introduction to Sicily and at Sicilia Mia it is served in a timbale shape, bright green and tender, garnished with zigzags of balsamic and shards of Parmigiana.

At lunch, sandwiches come on crusty bread made from the house pizza dough. Canoli and other pastries are made in-house; the wine list is brief but focused on Italian wines, including some Sicilian selections.

In the end, what makes Sicilia Mia irresistible is the genuine warmth of the chef Franco Mirenda and his entire—and mostly Sicilian—staff. (Here’s a nod to our Norwegian server, who was as personable and knowledgeable about the food as the Sicilians.) You can’t fake friendly.

4536 Highland Rd., Millcreek, 801-274-0223

Mary Brown Malouf :Mary Brown Malouf is the Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.