By Nancy Tannler
3035 SE Division St
Hours: 11 am – 3 pm, 5 – 10 pm
When Benito Omana first came to the United States in 1991, he knew he had one clear ambition – to open his own restaurant. After twenty plus years of cooking experience, he opened the successful Bellino’s Pasta Cafe in Hillsboro but decided to move his restaurant closer to home a few months ago. When a space on Division St. became available, Casa Mia on Division began serving.
As a child, Omana knew he liked to cook but rather than going for the more conventional job in a Mexican restaurant when he came to the US, he went to work at the Italian Pazzo hotel restaurant in downtown Portland. He knew very little English, but understood how to work hard, slice vegetables, bus tables and watch the chefs prepare and serve this type of food.
Omana’s taste for Italian food increased over the years as well as his knowledge of English. He worked for several different restaurants over the years, but it was while he was working at il Fornaia on 22nd & W. Burnside, that he developed a special relationship with chef Osvaldo Tomatis, who became his mentor.
Tomatis began to teach him the artistry of his years of culinary experience. Omana watched and learned and slowly worked his way up the chain of command until he was preparing the food by himself.
“My greatest joy was watching the expressions on the diners faces as they tasted something I had made,” Omana said. “That is what I look for in my new restaurant today, that look of satisfaction.”
One of the secrets of his pasta dishes are the homemade noodles. Although they are labor intensive, they make the difference by enhancing the flavors of different sauces. The dinner menu follows the traditional form of antipasti, insalate, contorni and la minestra (vegetables, salad and soup), primi and secondi dinners served á la carte. So far the Division Street crowd pleaser is the lasagna, made with Chef Benito’s intense meat sauce.
Omana has not completely abandoned his Mexican roots where his first love for cooking began. He has learned to incorporate this influence into some of his dishes. The Bistecca di Manzo, grilled rib eye steak comes with a dollop of jalapeño butter and the Caprese messicana is made with cotija, a Mexican cheese, and is served with avocado. Many of the courses are traditional, but there are a few different twists for diners to choose from.
Omana is also open to suggestions if he has the ingredients available or can get them readily. “I love to cook for people and want to make them feel at home in my restaurant,” Omana said. He goes out of his way to accommodate his guests.
Casa Mia opens at 11 am with espresso and cornetti (croissants). Lunch is served until 3 pm and you can expect a selection of pastas, panini, soup and salads. Dinner begins at 5 pm offering many Italian traditions served family style. There is a full bar, wine and beer as well as a list of beverages. For dessert gelato, tiramisu, panecolla and cannoli are some of the house staples.
Casa Mia is small and intimate, serving about fifteen tables, so it is easy for Omana to slip out of the kitchen every once in awhile to greet his guests. So far the people in the community have been supportive and appreciative of the food. He has even retained some of his long time customers from Hillsboro who make their way over the river to SE Portland.