The Food Guy: Mia Francesca

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There was a time, not that long ago, when regional Italian restaurants in Chicago were rare.

But one restaurant helped usher in a new era of regional Italian cooking, and its legacy is felt all over Chicagoland.

In the early 90s, French was the dominant cuisine in Chicago’s better restaurants. But Mia Francesca changed that, by cooking new dishes every day, based on whatever was available; always looking to Rome for inspiration. More than 30 years later, the restaurant has spawned a dozen offspring.

Platters of poached asparagus – a sure sign of Spring – next to wide bowls of cooked chickpeas embedded with green olives and red peppers. The antipasti station is a new addition to an old standby. Mia Francesca has been a beacon of Italian cooking for more than 30 years in Lake View, but the original landlord almost brought in a coffeeshop instead.

“It was between us and Starbucks who was gonna take the place and he just had a liking for us – young kids trying to make it work,” said Scott Harris, the owner of Mia Francesca.

Harris was a 27-year-old cook back then, recruiting a team that has largely stayed with him over the years. Their focus was clear.

“Straight-up Roman trattoria. I was pretty French-trained in my 20s, and I was lucky enough to work at Trattoria L’Angolo di Roma at Clark and Belden, and I just fell in love with the food.”

Simple and straightforward. Each dish only a few ingredients – garlic, shallots, chili flakes.

“Six pasta, six entrees and that was it. We wrote the menu daily,” he said.

Pasta with roasted eggplant, tomato sauce, fresh basil and creamy mozzarella was less than ten bucks in 1992. It’s twice that today. Same goes for the always popular linguine hiding a mess of shellfish, and the classic Pollo alla Romana – a roasted half chicken perfumed with garlic, shallots and rosemary, plus fresh lemon and olive oil. Engulfed in a seasoned pan sauce, the roasted potatoes absorb both the sauce and the pan drippings.

Cocktails are featured in the bar, which you won’t recognize from the 90s, because they gave the entire space a facelift, reopening in February, on their 32nd anniversary.

“We remodeled the place, freshened it up, and just brought it up to 2024 standards,” he said.

Harris said loyal customers are one thing, but the restaurant’s DNA hasn’t changed.

“I think just the simplicity and the consistency and the food. What I really enjoy is seeing the four year-olds when I opened the restaurant now they’re bringing their kids to the restaurant, it’s very important to me,” said Harris.

From Lake Forest and Barrington, down to Frankfort and Palos Park - few restaurants have so completely dominated Chicagoland like Francesca’s. Unless your name is Malnati, but that’s a different kind of menu of course.

Here's where you can go:

Mia Francesca

3311 N. Clark St.


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