As you walk through the front door at Mia Francesca, you cant help but notice the towering stone and brick bar to your left or the enormous pillar candle chandeliers overhead. Moving on into the dining room, your eye is drawn farther upward along two-story walls trimmed in dark wood evocative of Old World half-timbering. Set high into the far wall, behind balcony railing, you can make out a mezzanine level dining room whose brick barrel-vaulted ceiling and wine racks call to mind a wine cellar.
Back at ground level, ladderback chairs, simple wood tables and booths, rustic board floors and sepia-toned landscapes of the Italian countryside complete the illusion that youre dining not in the upscale Renaissance Hotel at North Hills but at an inn in Tuscany.
Add waiters in black T-shirts with a script Mia Francesca logo across the front, and it doesnt take a leap of the imagination to realize the restaurant belongs to a chain.
But it is by no means a cookie-cutter franchise operation. The North Hills location is the first in the South of a popular Chicago-based chain. Founder Scott Harris still serves as corporate executive chef, and his recipes are the foundation of the offerings.
Each location has its own personality, though, as reflected in everything from name (the location in Chicagos Little Italy, for instance, is Francescas on Taylor) to whose face is silk-screened onto the back of those T-shirts worn by the servers. In Raleigh, the portrait is of Harris daughter.
In the same spirit, the menu boasts individual flourishes that wouldnt pass the least-common-denominator test of the typical corporate menu. At each location, the core menu is supplemented by a fairly substantial local offering that changes every two weeks or so.
If youre lucky, that list will include a variation typically rigatoni or linguine of Mia Francescas exceptionally meaty bolognese made with ground beef, veal and chunks of slow-cooked pork shoulder. Snap it up quickly, though, because it usually sells out.
If your bolognese bid comes up empty, youll find ample consolation in pollo arrosto alla Romano. A menu staple since the original Francescas opened in 1992, the dish serves up half a roast chicken and fat batons of rosemary-roasted potatoes, slathered in a garlicky gravy. And I dont mean tomato gravy.
Granted, the roast chicken and bolognese are protein-and-starch bombs, with the only greenery coming in the form of chopped parsley garnish.
Thats easily remedied with an à la carte side of sautéed spinach. Or one of Mia Francescas refreshingly different salads - asparagus, blue cheese and tomato, say, or sugar snap peas, tomato and cucumber in a light citrusy dressing.
Fettuccine con gamberi, featured recently as a special (a list that changes daily), scored points with expertly cooked jumbo shrimp and a spicy marinara laced with barely wilted baby spinach leaves. If only the pasta hadnt been clumped together in several places, the dish would have been a home run.
Likewise, an otherwise commendable presentation of carpaccio an edible stained-glass-window of rosy petals of beef, diced tomatoes, capers, mushrooms and shaved parmigiano was marred only by beef slices around the perimeter that were stuck firmly to the rim of the platter.
A quattro stagione pizza tantalized with prosciutto, artichoke, mushrooms, olives, and in the middle a soft-cooked egg, whose yolk the server ladled out over the rest of the pie.
But the crust lackluster and a bit tough failed to live up to the topping.
The number of misses is higher than youd like to see in a restaurant thats been open a year now, but they are with few exceptions near-misses.
Youre not likely to encounter an out-and-out disappointment from the kitchen.
Unfortunately, the same cant be said for the wait staff, whose level of experience varies widely.
Depending on which one gets your table, you may encounter smooth sailing or find yourself beached on the shoals of inattentiveness, parched for a water refill or another glass of wine from that gravity-defying cellar, a solid selection thats divided roughly equally between Old World (mostly Italian) and New World.
Of course, you could always plan on dining early, in the hope that even if youre assigned an inexperienced waiter, a less-crowded dining room will improve the chances for success.
As a bonus, your chances of scoring an order of bolognese are that much better.
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org/mouthful