Mia Francesca’s al fresco dining hits the mark.

Dining al fresco is one of my favorite things to do. There is just something about a great meal in the fresh air that can’t be beat. Chicagoans in general are big fans of this and as a result there is no shortage of restaurants with patios whether it’s set up right on the sidewalk, part of the latest rooftop bar/restaurant craze, or eating anywhere along the Riverwalk. Any restaurant with a patch of outdoors is jumping on this particular bandwagon. But let’s focus for a moment on Mia Francesca’s

The original restaurant has been around for 25 years on North Clark Street.  It resides in an old candy store and when they renovated to turn it into the restaurant, they did their best to preserve as many of the novel details as was feasible. From the street you have no idea what awaits you should you request seating on the patio.  Winding your way through the restaurant you are led out back to a hidden outdoor seating area.  The walls are covered in a mural that enhances your view and makes you feel like you’re overlooking typical northern Italian countryside. Seating is quite limited so it’s best to request the patio when you make a reservation.  Further back still is a coach house that is perfect for private events or just hanging out while waiting for your table.

Of course, a great venue has to be matched by delicious food and Mia’s hits the mark.  Their Italian fare focuses on more northern cuisine.  Whereas southern Italian food is heavily focused on olive oil, tomato sauces and pasta reflective of its more Mediterranean roots, northern Italian food leans more towards cuisine suited to the mountainous regions so you’ll find no shortage of meats and butter-based dishes.

I started with a lovely cocktail called the Peppered Punch made with Maestro Dobel Tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, pineapple juice, agave nectar and Bittermans Hellfire Bitters.  While it sounds hot, it was actually light and sweet and easy to order more than one.

My dining companion and I had a bruschetta that consisted of garlic toast, tomatoes, mozzarella, arugula, lemon and olive oil. The crunchiness of the toast, the soft cheese and crispy arugula, melted delightfully in my mouth.

Our side dish was Cavolfiore Fritti crispy fried cauliflower with brussels sprouts, bacon, marcona almonds, sweet onion, red wine vinaigarette and parmesan cheese.  I would have ordered a second round of this lovely plate except I had to leave room for my exquisite salmon, and the obligatory al fresco dessert.

As for the fish, it was grilled and served over asparagus – a spot-on combination.  Light and flaky, the salmon was cooked perfectly and the toppings of tomatoes, avocado, red onions, olive oil, basil and lemon enhanced the flavor with mouth-watering results. My companion had the 12-ounce rib eye in a Barolo wine sauce served with parmesan truffle fries. The steak was the perfect temperature, tender and juicy (hard to do when ordered well done – hats off) and those fries (small, crisp and so flavorful) were inhaled in no time.

With room to spare (yes we ordered a lot of food but then I enjoyed the rest of it a day or so later), we went for the ice-cream filled, fresh whip cream- topped, biscotti-dipped, caramel and chocolate sauce-dripping, cherry-on-top sloppy sundae.  I swear they were encouraging me to lick the glass clean and I would have done so is I were less of a lady. This may sound heavy but it was the perfect end to a delightful meal and I did not regret my decision.

You can tell that the staff and management at Mia’s love what they do and they pay attention to detail. The Chicago restaurant scene is fierce and you have to stay on top of your game to survive for an extended period of time. So, kudos to Mia’s for making it the first 25 years, and also to expanding their restaurants to also include several other locations throughout Chicagoland.

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