The ingredients are easy enough to figure out: a good location, a talented chef, an interesting menu, polished service. But there's no such thing as a surefire recipe for a successful restaurant, and even the most artful combination of these components sometimes can't prevent a restaurant from failing.
A powerful intangible also comes into play: luck, which so far is smiling on the two-month-old restaurant called Mio: an Italian Trattoria.
The brainchild of Julian Viso, corporate executive turned chef, Mio seems to be thriving in a location that suffocated two previous tenants: Mandarinism and Blue Fin Asian Fusion. The memory of those places has faded over the two years that this suburban storefront, at 135th Street and Roe, has remained empty, and Mio (the Italian word for my or mine) has been full, with a waiting list, every time I've visited. (The first time I ate dinner here, I sat at the bar.)
Appearances, of course, can be a little deceiving. Mio's dining room, which seats just 75 people, is small enough to appear robustly populated as soon as a handful of diners is present. Mio could probably do twice its volume in a bigger space, but that's not the point. This Mio is a test, a prototype for a chain of modestly priced casual Italian spots. (The most expensive entrée on the current menu is a $22 grilled steak.)
"This is not a red-sauce Italian restaurant," says the Venezuelan-born Viso. He started his culinary career in the 1980s while working at movie producer Dino De Laurentiis' Beverly Hills restaurant, DDL Foodshow. "I worked every position in the restaurant," he recalls.
"In the last 24 years, I've been mostly traveling for work," Viso says. "I've eaten in at least 5,000 restaurants in 15 different countries. I have ideas for several different restaurants — a real Argentinian steakhouse, for example, and a traditional Latin tapas restaurant, the kind I grew up visiting in Venezuela."
Viso has incorporated Specialty Cuisine Concepts as an umbrella operation for his planned culinary ventures. But the immediate success of Mio has narrowed his focus a bit: He wants to find a second location in downtown Kansas City, just east of the Crossroads. But it has to be the right space, he insists, "to replicate the energy and vitality of the Leawood restaurant."
A lot of that vitality can be credited to Carl Brandt, the veteran local restaurateur whom Viso has hired as Mio's general manager. One of the most hands-on restaurant professionals I've ever met, Brandt has trained a young staff of servers and bartenders who are really on the ball: polished, articulate and knowledgable about the menu.
That knowledge is important because the menu, though not sophisticated, is a little tricky — at least if you're avoiding certain ingredients. The risotto di porcini looks from its description to be a meatless dish, but Viso uses prosciutto in the preparation. "It gives so much more depth to the dish," he tells me. "These are my grandmother's dishes. They can't be changed."
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I've spent a lifetime tinkering with my Italian grandmother's dishes — not always for the better, I admit — and it's the reason I rarely order a dish like Viso's spaghettini all'aglio (pasta with garlic, olive oil and crushed red pepper). It's easy and cheap to make at home. But the food here is executed well enough to merit taking the night off from the family cookbook. Viso's baked lasagne, for example, is simple but very satisfying, layered with a robust Bolognese sauce and baked en casserole.
Kansas Citians have long been set in their ways about Italian restaurants. Historically, they've been used to baskets of Roma bread served with ice-cold pats of hard butter. They expect a salad to be included in the price of the meal. And God forbid there's no spaghetti and meatballs on the list of entrées or spumoni on the dessert menu.
It's not exactly a revolution, but Viso doesn't offer any of those items. He admits that customers come in looking for them, and he isn't a bit cowed by their expectations. He's proud of his very un-Roma flatbread, for one thing. "It's pizza dough," he says, explaining the discs that look like oversized communion wafers. "It's an idea we discovered in a restaurant in California." It doesn't taste like an epiphany, even by suburban standards, but it does come with a sensational dipping sauce of sundried-tomato-infused olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and garlic.
Viso is tweaking the menu for a change in November, but he plans to keep two of the metro's best soups on his list. The minestrone is soothing, and the lentil-and-sausage soup, as thick as a porridge, borders on the divine. It's hearty, with a sly kick from fresh onions, basil and red-pepper flakes.
Plenty of the dishes here are intensely flavorful. I like the thick grilled pork chop — a first-rate, wonderfully moist cut slathered with a piquant balsamic reduction — though it needs a name change. It's not a Sicilian braciola, which few local restaurants serve, but a sexy braciolette. Viso says he's about to tweak that dish, but the excellent grilled lamb chops will stay just as they are: a meaty rack blanketed in a shiny, supple sauce seasoned with rosemary, thyme and allspice.
The dolci list is strictly Italian — not even a scoop of spumoni to be found — with a moist ricotta cake, a pretty little chocolate tart, and a bread pudding made with squares of panettone. The staff raves about that festive yeast loaf (baked with raisons, citron and pine nuts), but the serving I tasted was dry. And when did bread pudding become the new crème brûlée anyway?
Viso picked the restaurant's name because he liked the idea that "what's mine is yours." There's an undeniable conviviality in this dining room (a good thing because it's so small), and Viso is one of those chef-restaurateurs who likes to come out of the kitchen and talk to his guests. If he can figure out how to replicate himself for every future Mio, he'll really have the winning recipe for a dynamic restaurant chain.