Culinary Road Trip
Back to my hometown of Oneonta, and memory lane, for a special birthday lunch.
By Jan Walsh
Old friends from Oneonta, including Mayor Richard Phillips, have been urging me to come and dine at Mio Sogno since it opened in 2020. Today is Daddy Joe’s 89th Birthday. So, we are heading “home” for this special birthday lunch with Joe.
I literally grew up in Oneonta restaurants: Gold Star, Jonah’s, Ralph & Pops, Little Joe’s, The Dairy Queen, Round the Clock, The Landmark, and Charlie B’s. Grocery shopping was not a practice at my house. So I ate out or got takeout three meals a day. In the mornings before school, Jonah Price, or as I called him, “The Great White Father” for his height, silver hair, and being like yet another father to me, would have my breakfast cooked ready to serve. When I walked in the door at Jonah’s a plate of fried eggs, grits, and toast was immediately served. He allowed me to sign the ticket before I dashed off to school. By the time I was a teen I’d had enough of lunchroom food. So, I started slipping out and going to the restaurants for lunch. Some girlfriends took notice, long before the principal did, and began to join me. Soon we were two cars full sneaking out to a different eatery each day until one day when I was out sick. Returning to school the following day, none of my lunch ladies were in attendance. I asked where they were to learn that they had been caught leaving the campus for lunch and were all on suspension. Oops! My favorite dinner restaurant as a young child was Gold Star, Jonah’s wife, Kate’s restaurant. Here I first ate salads with oil and vinegar dressing and baked potatoes heaped with butter and sour cream with my hamburger steak, smothered in caramelized onions. In later years my all-time favorite, Oneonta restaurant became The Landmark. Oneonta’s legendary chef, my neighbor who was also like family to me, Charlie Bottcher became to Oneonta what Frank Stitt is to Birmingham. And The Landmark quickly became a destination restaurant, drawing diners from all over Alabama on their own culinary road trips for his French, Italian, and Southern inspired cuisine and cooking classes. Charlie’s dad would bring fresh seafood from the Gulf. And Charlie’s crab cakes bursting with jumbo lump crabmeat were the best I have ever had—and still are. We still make them at home from the original recipe in The Landmark Cookbook.
Much has changed since those days… Oneonta has always been one of those “small town America” communities with “Mom and Pop” shops, on every corner—places where the people who know you by name, are happy to see and serve you with friendly smiles abound. Yet it hasn’t been until the recently, with smart growth minded leadership at the helm, that Oneonta has grown into herself. The historic downtown that was all but vacant is now bustling with foot traffic, new retailers, and a newfound sense of place. And my hometown has never seemed so eager and willing to embrace itself as a destination city. From dining, shopping, nightlife, and recreation, Oneonta is changing in ways that are both refreshing and desperately needed. Mayor Phillips’s promise was to drag Oneonta into the 21st century, without sacrificing the unique charm visitors and residents alike have cherished for generations. So far it is working. I haven’t witnessed this much change in Oneonta, the good kind of change, ever.
Mio Songo Ristorante wraps around the corner at 200 1st Avenue East, at the original location of McPherson's Dry Goods Grocery Store, 1916. We arrive just before they open to shoot photos of this Italian steakhouse. And like much of Oneonta, I do not recognize this building with its facelift of exposed brick and tall tin ceiling. Originally Chef Valentin Sanchez and his family came to Blount County from Chicago, and he opened a much smaller version of the restaurant in Locust Fork. Its success led to opening this restaurant Oneonta in 2020.
“Mio Songo” translates to “my dream,” which fits the moment as it seems fantasized to be handed a wine list in an Oneonta restaurant. During my 39 years of growing up and living here, Blount County was dry. It was not until 2012 that Oneonta fought a long, hard battle to go wet. And after months of campaigning, Oneonta voted overwhelmingly to legalize alcohol sales, only to be met with a lawsuit claiming the election was invalid. While the outcome of that litigation is obvious, the journey there was difficult. Since going wet, three other Blount County municipalities have followed suit, voting to go wet, such as Oneonta. Without this important step forward, Oneonta wouldn’t have wine lists, breweries, or even a locally owned beer and wine store. And what a wine list Mio Songo has! California’s finest is found here as well as impressive French and Italian labels, plus pretty wines at every price point. We toast Joe’s 89th Birthday with Lucien Albrecht Brut, Blanc de Blanc. From Alsace this wine is 80 percent Pinot Auxerrois, 10 percent Pinot Blanc, 10 percent Chardonnay, and 100 percent lovely. It is straw in color, light in body, creamy in texture, with acidic notes of lemon and grapefruit.
We start with appetizer of Cheese Sticks and sides of French Fries and Roasted Vegetables. The cheese sticks are more like logs than sticks, given their enormity. They are fried to a golden brown, crisp on the outside, oozing with creamy melted mozzarella inside and are served with tomato basil sauce for dipping. Never had better. The roasted veggies are fresh and flavorful. A healthy array of squash, onions, broccoli, and red peppers are coated in a scrumptious spice herb mix and grilled to crisp tender. Simply delicious. And true to a steakhouse the fries are fabulous. Hand cut to order with skins on, thin sliced, and fried to perfection—golden outside and fluffy inside. All our apps are highly recommended.
The angus steaks tempt. But we will have to come back another day to try because as I expected, Joe came for the seafood. He orders Blackened Fish and Gulf Shrimp. Kev opts for the lasagna special of the day. And I select today’s Fettuccini with Gulf Shrimp special. Joe’s fish dish is a beauty. A generous filet of delicate white fish floats on a pool of creamy and zesty chipotle lime sauce, and is crowned with a colorful and multi textured, vegetable rice pilaf—of red peppers, green onions, and corn. And the shrimp round out the plate with their succulent shellfish richness. Today’s lasagna is a man pleaser, boasting multiple sheets of thin pasta layered with a marvelous meaty sauce and a melted blend of Italian cheeses. And my plate is heaped high with ribbons of fettuccini wound in a velvety, buttery, cheesy Alfredo and packed with plump, protein rich pink shrimp.
For dessert, Chef Valentin treats us to every dessert on the menu—plus the special house dessert, Fried Ice Cream, which is not always available. In addition to the fried ice cream desserts, include a lovely Key Lime Pie, a chocolate lover’s dream of Chocolate Cake and ice cream, and a comforting Bread Pudding in butterscotch ice cream. All the desserts are delightful. But the bomb is the fried ice cream! The ice cream is still firm inside its warm, crunchy shell as we dip into its superb goodness with thin, crisp, fried, sugared tortillas. Among the best and most unique desserts we have ever had, we will be back for more. Some chefs outsource desserts. Not Chef Valentin. He prepares each and every one in house, which is evident in every fresh and decadent bite. Overachieving at both the sweet and the savory, Mio Songo is a white table clothed, dream come true for Oneonta.
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