By Brianna Chu
November 19, 2019 will mark Mi Piace’s 30th anniversary; when they opened in 1989, Old Town Pasadena didn’t even have Cheesecake Factory yet. Mi Piace is one of the few restaurants that were open in 1989 still left. Armen Shirvanian opened Mi Piace with his mom, and partner and pastry chef Takis Markoutsis. Unlike many others in the industry, Shirvanian did not have a previous background in the food industry. Instead, he went to law school, which was his father’s dream for him. It was never for Shirvanian, though, and he dropped out in 1987 to pursue his actual dream of owning a restaurant. Two years later, Mi Piace opened.
The restaurant was always meant to be a dining and bakery concept, which makes sense given partner Markoutsis’ background as a pastry chef. Markoutsis nowadays spends most of his time at their wholesale bakery, where they make pastries and bread for customers like hotels and Staples Center. Shirvanian, on his part, gets to the restaurant around noon every day and doesn’t leave until 11 pm to midnight on weekdays and 2 am on weekends, working pretty much the same hours over the past thirty years. Their staff is tight-knit, and many in and outside of the kitchen and bakery have been working at Mi Piace for over twenty years. Shirvanian’s own mother worked there from 1989-2012, despite having already technically retired.
The original space was only a little over 200 square feet. In 2003, they expanded and redesigned, creating the iteration that customers enjoy now. New York interior designer Tony Chi brought his expertise to the interior. In terms of menu, there are only maybe two or three items left that they served when they first opened; two of those are classic chicken dishes: the pollo al sesame and the pollo mi piace. There are some items on the menu that have been long-time mainstays, and though Shirvanian may wish to remove them from the menu, his servers and staff insist that he can’t. And so, they’ve remained. Other parts of the menu may not remain as unscathed – he makes a point to remove two items every six months and introduce two new ones, to make sure the menu continues to evolve and change, and then they monitor how their patrons react. Their specials are new every week. The signature cocktails, too, change every four months, with mixologists coming in to create new drinks for the season.
The menu has evolved with Pasadena itself, according to both Shirvanian and head chef, Gil Saulnier. Shirvanian himself is Armenian, not Italian, so he admits that it’s not necessarily authentic, but he still opines that the cuisine is still very much Italian-American. He considers it a more progressive outlook on Italian food, with a fundamental basis in good comfort food that people enjoy. Chef Saulnier notes that items on the recent Dine Pasadena special menu, for instance, features yellowtail and pork belly, which aren’t necessarily strictly Italian ingredients, but reflects the demands and preferences of the city around them. They haven’t lost or forgotten the classics even with the new additions; they still offer high-quality pastas, like their best-selling traditional osso bucco and pescatore, pizzas, and other traditional Italian fare. They pride themselves on a flexible, friendly menu that has a little something for everyone, whether it be casual comfort food or more refined, luxurious items.
No matter what, though, there is no compromising on quality in the Mi Piace kitchen or bakery. Almost 75-85% of the pastas are made fresh from scratch – nothing is frozen. They have their own pasta room, and their menu showcases a separate pasta section for the homemade and the imported pastas for full transparency.
Chef Saulnier treated me to a sampling of Mi Piace’s most traditional Italian dishes, showcasing several of their fresh pastas in the process. The caprese was a celebration of its fresh, organic heirloom tomatoes and burrata, garnished with micro-greens and seasoned simply with sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and balsamic reduction. Their warm, soft, homemade focaccia with rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan cheese was the perfect accompaniment to the caprese, and so easy to eat.
Featuring in-house pappardelle and a bolognese sauce made with their own blend of ground beef, the bolognese pappardelle was an elevated version of a classic comfort food. The freshly-ground beef, mirepoix, hints of red wine, porcini mushroom, cream, and parmesan reggiano made for an incredibly luxurious sauce that was perfectly proportioned to the amount of fresh pasta.
Shirvanian unexpectedly brought me their orange grove cocktail, one of the drinks he also can’t take off the their drinks list. It was bright and aromatic – I could really smell and taste the grapefruit and basil. It was a perfect drink for a sunny spring day in Southern California, and I can understand why customers would riot if it left the menu.
Their pescatore is another one of the menu items that has remained from the original. Pescatore differs from cioppino mainly in the amount of broth, of which pescatore has more. Mi Piace’s pescatore simmers for six to eight full hours, creating a truly wonderful broth that merges the tomatoes and seafood broth with a slight chili kick. Clams, New Zealand mussels, scallops, and calamari are some of the seafood that I enjoyed in the dish, submerged in the incredible broth and atop a small bed of spinach fettuccine, which was, of course, made in-house. Every component was perfectly cooked, nothing soggy or tough, in this symphony of seafood.
The final savory dish I tasted was their osso bucco with risotto. The mushroom risotto was decadent and creamy, and the meat was so tender I could pull it apart with the spoon, which handily included a prong end to use to extract the bone marrow with ease. Topped with some fresh herbs, and what tasted like a little lemon zest, this osso bucco was a delectable, opulent treat.
At the recommendation of my server, I sampled the creme brulee. The classic French treat had an addicting, vanilla bean and orange zest custard; and they absolutely did not skimp on that thick sugar crust. I needed to take a couple of good cracks to break the caramel!
Their dessert menu warns patrons of a fifteen minute or so wait for their signature “chocolate soup,” a flourless, bittersweet Belgian chocolate souffle served with a side of Chantilly cream. I’d wager that for true chocolate lovers, that wait is worth it – it’s a truly indulgent dessert ideal for the chocolate connoisseur. I’d be truly amazed if one person could eat it by themselves, though; though the chocolate is dark and bittersweet, you will still definitely need a drink and a friend to finish the rich, creamy creation.
Even with their variety of upwards of 50 dishes, Mi Piace has proven they can still do Italian food well. There’s a reason why they have remained while other restaurants have not; an accessible restaurant perfect for all the ages, Mi Piace is the perfect solution to the “where should we eat?” conundrum. There’s sure to be something to please any group, and I will certainly have to return and try more of their menu.
25 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91105
MI PIACE HOURS
Saturday and Sunday 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Every day 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Sunday – Thursday 4:00 PM – 11:00 PM
Friday & Saturday 4:00 PM – 12:00 AM
HAPPY HOUR IN THE MP LOUNGE
Monday & Tuesday All Night!!! 4:00PM – closing
Wednesday – Friday 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM