That archetypal scene in countless dramas where the frumpy librarian removes her glasses and shakes her long hair out of a prim bun, transforming into a beauty — that's the difference in the lunch and dinner experiences at Mirko Pasta, a growing franchise with a location on Demonbreun near the roundabout. Go early, and you'll find plain-Jane express-lunch Italian notable mainly for its affordability and convenience. Come later, however, and you may return to a knockout.
We'll begin by accentuating the positive. Situated between Flavour and Tin Roof, Mirko occupies a space that was formerly half of the Rhythm condo model. Mirko (pronounced MEER-ko), which has most of its locations in Georgia, built it out with up-to-date finishes and multiple types of seating: patio out front, tables in view of the kitchen, and booths in the back for romance or business.
Any will do for awaiting the arrival of the fresh, hot mini boules with a dip of satiny white bean puree. A slick of greenish-gold olive oil and a twinkling of rosemary top the dip. It's tempting to dig in and make a meal of dip and bread with a glass of wine, especially during the two-for-one happy hour on wine and beer.
But don't. For one thing, you'd miss the well-priced, well-made appetizers, starting with the carpaccio. It's a bold statement of confidence to offer carpaccio, especially for $8. But Mirko's delivers, offering beef round sliced impossibly thin and heaped with a toss of baby greens, brittle leaves and shards of Parmesan, puckery capers and the barest glazing of lemon and olive oil.
That should fortify you for a foray into the alphabet of Italian pasta shapes and sauces. Mirko makes 15 pasta shapes, then freezes the portions to maintain as much of their freshness as possible. Factor in 11 sauces, and you get 165 possibilities for delicious contemplation ... or agonizing indecision.
The pasta shapes are listed first, but it's easier to select a sauce first ($5 each). They're almost evenly divided into meat and meatless, with classics well represented by Amatriciana, Bolognese, sausage-mushroom, pomodoro and Alfredo. More searching yields the alluring Boscaiola (fresh peas, ham, wild mushrooms, cream and Parmesan), Quattro Formaggi e Noci (four cheese fondue and toasted walnuts) and Pink Sauce, which combines the richness of Alfredo with a sweet tang of pomodoro sauce.
Pastas are divided into "short," "long" ($4.50) and "stuffed" ($5.50), which urges a judgment on the merits of flowing capellini strands versus a businesslike rigatoni. Do you consider pasta mainly a vehicle for sauce delivery? Penne may be your best choice. Does the chewy heft of pappardelle enliven the eating experience? Up to you, chum. Maybe there's comfort in the familiarity of fettuccine, or a little fun in the happy slurping of tagliatelle.
The curls of fusilli make a fine capture device for rich Alfredo sauce. Pillowy gnocchi distinguish themselves with a beautifully light texture under Caprino e Pinoli, a rich and tangy combination of goat cheese and tomato punctuated with crunchy, smoky toasted pine nuts.
Pasta portions are manageable, true "primi piatti" servings, enough for a satisfying light meal (especially if you indulged in the boules and bean spread) or a pleasant introduction to a hearty entrée from a short list of the secondi/entrée selections.
I'd recommend Pollo al Mattone, the brick-roasted chicken. A chicken quarter gets a dunking in rosemary and lemon, then a spell in the oven. It's finished under a foil-wrapped brick for firm, crisp skin with grilled flavor finish. Crunchy-edged lemony potato cubes make the plate a perfect portrait of comfort food, and the $13 price makes it go down even easier.
Later this month, expect a slight shift in the menu: Pasta fillings will change, and a hearty seafood stew will be added. The intent is to keep favorites available while allowing for seasonal flavors and new plates.
Because the idea of quick, affordable Italian options sounds so appealing, Mirko's guests requested a menu of lunch specials. The result features a few popular dishes like lasagna, butternut squash ravioli and eggplant Parmesan. The selections are a little lower-priced than the $9.50 pasta combinations, and can be in front of you fast for an express lunch.
Speed and price point, however, did not produce the results we had enjoyed so much at dinner. Maybe we were unlucky in our choices, but lunch plates offered just the faintest suggestion of what had clearly been well-made dishes. Despite thin sheets of homemade pasta and finely ground meat filling, the spinach lasagna tasted like reheated leftovers. The flabby, overcooked tagliatelle did no justice to Amatriciana sauce. Eggplant Parmesan was topped with too much cheese and spent too long under the broiler, while the Caesar salad was desperately short on dressing.
Only the brilliant emerald Insalata di Spinaci, with raisins, goat cheese and a judicious slicking of honey walnut vinaigrette, hinted at how good the food could be.
Not that lunch isn't thoughtfully priced — half-salads for $3.50, panini for $8 ($6 for a half), eggplant Parmesan for $6, handmade lasagna for $8. The guests around us were cheery and seemed satisfied. But if they want to see Mirko at its finest, they should come back at dinnertime, when its pastas and sauces are presented to their best advantage. There's a lot at stake for both potential customers and franchisee Missy Johnson; her investors hold the rights to six Mirko locations in and around Nashville, with the next planned for Mt. Juliet. If they can resemble by day what the Demonbreun location does by night, they could all be stunners.
Mirko is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
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