Mario Rana has high hopes about his new modern Italian restaurant/wine bar, Osteria Mia, in Norterra. But first, he and his wife, Kayla, had to survive the turbulent early 2020.
“I didn’t expect it to open during a pandemic,” said the classically trained chef, who specializes in Italian food. “I had to call a lot of audibles and pretty much change everything. I had to change the game plan to survive during this.”
The menu was one of the notable changes. Osteria Mia opened during a time when restaurants could only offer take out. Rana had to offer dishes that would stand up when it arrives to a guest’s home.
“There are raviolis and pastas that, if people eat them 15, 20 minutes after they get them, they’re going to be soggy,” Rana said. “We had to change to make (heartier) items that will be good for takeout.
“Now that we’re open, we’re slowly starting to incorporate things.”
The Ranas are focusing on new-school handmade pastas and wood-fired pizzas—with a slight Arizona flair to it.
“You will see Southwestern flavors in our food,” Rana said. “We’re doing a lot of the classics, like the bucatini, and just a lot of Italian regional items. We’re doing stuff all the way from Northern Italy down to Sicily. So, we’re not just focusing on one area. We have influences from other regions.”
Osteria Mia will serve small plates as well as a build-your-own charcuterie and bruschetta board, and a rotating menu of hand-made pasta and select dried pasta.
Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are on the docket. It offers daily entrée specials such as whole roasted fish, duroc pork chops, wood-fired whole chicken and wine-braised short ribs.
He calls his signature dish his pizzas, which range from $14-$17.
“I think we have some of the best pizzas in America,” Rana said. “I mean, that’s a bold statement because there’s some great pizza out here. I think ours is up there.
“We make the mozzarella fresh in house. We use high-quality tomatoes and our family’s pizza dough recipe. We actually use beer in our pizza dough because Arizona’s water is gross, and the beer is super filtered.”
Rana also enjoys the orecchiette—ear-shaped semolina pasta in a garlic parmigiano sauce with broccolini, Italian sausage, chilis and oven-roasted tomatoes ($16).
“That’s definitely my favorite dish,” said Rana, who simply enjoys grilling pork chops and steaks at home.
Other pastas on the menu include lupara, red wine-infused rigatoni pasta; squid ink bucatini; creste di gallo; tortellini; and gnocci alla Norma, which range from $14-$23.
Rana is just doing what he loves. His family, who immigrated from Southern Italy in the 1950s, has opened Italian restaurants and pizzerias in New York City since then. His grandparents moved to Arizona in the 1980s to open Phoenix-based Angelo’s Italian Ice and Gelato. They have dined at Osteria Mia, a visit that wasn’t exactly comfortable.
“I was pretty nervous for my grandfather to eat here,” said Rana, whose family owns State 48 Brewery. “He is a little discerning and picky, but actually he loved everything. My parents critiqued the food and I worked on them. It helped me improve the menu.”
Meeting of the minds
Rana said his cooking career was an accident. He moved to the Valley from New York City just before he entered Desert Mountain High School. After graduating, he tried to go to Scottsdale Community College, with the hopes of transferring to ASU, and get out of family business, but it didn’t work.
“I did it to pay for college,” he said. “I did it more and more and then I started getting better at it. Once I started actually holding my own, it was OK. I really like doing this. I have a passion for it. I’m the type of person who, whatever I do, I’m going to try to be the best at it.”
“I kept on asking her to hang out and she was ignoring me,” he said with a smile. “I ended up hanging out with her and then we ended up getting married a couple of years later.
“She has just as much experience as I have. She started working in restaurants when she was 15 also.”
Kayla, who brings front-of-house experience, took a break from working when she gave birth to their daughter, Mia, after whom the eatery is named. (“Osteria” means an Italian restaurant, typically a simple or inexpensive one.) Rana admits it was hard to keep his passion for the restaurant business during the pandemic.
“There were times I just wanted to give up and say, ‘Screw it,’” said Rana, who doesn’t require his staff to wear masks. “But I decided to just pivot and do what I can to survive. It was almost a blessing in disguise because we got to start off slower. It was one giant soft opening for the most part. It was a good way to work out the kinks.”
The pandemic seems to have softened the moods of the public, too. Rana noticed guests were more lenient and forgiving if an item was running late.
“There’s no way to be normal again,” he said. “But when people do start going out a lot more, we’ll be ready.
“However, there are still the Karens out there who can get mad over everything. There’s nothing you can do about those people, though.”
The right atmosphere
Rana said his spot in Norterra, near the Harkins Theater, was a good choice.
“It’s a great demographic just for what we’re trying to do,” he said. “As far as the wine, we went for a more casual atmosphere. This area is surrounded by chain restaurants and sports bars. What we’re doing is a slightly elevated cuisine and a higher-end atmosphere. We like to open restaurants in areas where there’s not a lot of competition.
“You want to be around restaurants or a destination spot. Plus, somebody might be going to Pita Jungle and then see our sign, look at the menu and say, ‘Oh, next time, I want to check out that place.’ We chose this area because we’re right next to the movie theater. This whole corridor is going to have four restaurants—State 48, Pita Jungle, Buffalo Wild Wings and us.”
Rana hopes in the fall society will return to its new normal, with people walking around, heading to the movies and to his neighbors’ restaurants.
More than entrées
Osteria Mia also features fresh pasta with which to take home and create dishes.
“The dry pasta, we make it with the pasta extruder and then we dry them and bag them so people can take them home to cook,” Rana said. “We teach people how to cook them at home. A lot of people have been buying the pastas, taking pictures of what they made and tagging us on social media.”
Even though the pasta is dried, he said it’s super fresh.
“I like bringing people joy,” he said about what Osteria Mia offers. “I’m not a narcissist. I just like the fact that they enjoyed something I created. It’s my art form. It’s my art on a plate and people enjoy it.
“Plus, I like creating a fun atmosphere. Some of my best friends I’ve met at restaurants. I met my wife at a restaurant. I enjoy being at restaurants. It’s something I like to do. I don’t know what else I would do. I wake up every morning and I’m excited to go to work, to try new specials and new ways to do things.”
Osteria Mia’s bar boasts an extensive Italian wine selection as well as Arizona wines and varietals from around the world. Happy hour features half-priced glasses of wine, and all day, guests can enjoy wine flights.
Looking around at his restaurant, Rana is pleased that so far North Phoenix seems to enjoy it, too.
“When we opened the doors, families were coming in. Senior citizens were coming in. Everyone came in and seemed excited to just be out at a restaurant. We’ve been working on this for more than a year and it got pushed back. It’s just nice to see people in here who have already become regulars.”