One of the major changes that occurred in America during the 20th century was the advent of the fast-food industry. Today there are an estimated 300,000 fast-food restaurants in the U.S. In 2013, America’s fast-food industry generated an estimated $191 billion in revenue.

In his book “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” author Eric Schlosser wrote: “Over the last three decades, fast-food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of modest hot dog and hamburger stands in Southern California has spread to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods wherever paying customers may be found. . . . Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software or new cars.”

OK, so fast food is likely here to stay. But don’t let the “Express” in Mia Lina’s Italian Express fool you. While the modest restaurant at 206 Main St. in Winthrop can serve up food fast, it’s large and varied menu speaks to an entirely different dining experience.

For instance, just a small sample of its Italian fare includes artisan pizzas, a host of unique calzones, subs, spaghetti, lasagna, baked ziti with sausage, cheese ravioli, spinach and broccoli cannelloni, cheese manicotti and fettucini alfredo (with chicken or broccoli).

And don’t let the “Italian” fool you either. In addition to traditional fast-food like hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and o-rings, the kitchen serves salads, soups, wraps, appetizers, Mexican fare and award-winning chili (including first place in the recent Keep Winthrop Warm Chili, Chowder and Soup Chow Down).

Not enough? The menu reminds: “Don’t see an item? Please ask.”

Manager Robin Richardson, who oversees day-to-day operations, says it all started when current owner Judith Marsden and her former husband took over a Mario’s franchise that was operating in a refurbished dairy building.

Richardson said that when Marsden decided not to renew the franchise, she purchased an 1800s home next to Mario’s and in 1992 she opened Mia Lina’s Italian Express after renovating the home. She also purchased the refurbished dairy building where Mario’s had been located and tore that down, converting it into a parking lot.

The home, which is listed on the historic register of Winthrop, still has the original molded tin ceilings in the dining room, and items of historic interest are displayed in a glass case.

According to Richardson, Marsden named the business for her daughter Lina; mia Lina means “my Lina” in Italian.

After the changeover, the restaurant continued to specialize in Italian foods, but the menu expanded over time to now even include lobster rolls during the summer months. All of the restaurant’s soups, sauces, and pastas are made on site and are available for takeout.

“Many of the recipes are from the employees’ own families, some going back generations,” says Richardson, noting that even customers have helped create new menu items, including the spaghetti and meatball calzone and the “Chicken Hottie,” which is a pizza topped with diced chicken simmered in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

“What really sets Mia Lina’s apart is their ability to keep an old standard relevant,” says Richardson. “The restaurant has been a landmark on Main Street for over 23 years, but the menu is so varied, and the staff is always inventing new items to try on the customers, it would take months to try every single meal offered.”

Minestrone soup

Courtesy of Mia Lina’s Robin Miller

3 cups reduced-sodium vegetable or chicken broth

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can white (cannellini or navy) beans, drained

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried sage

2 bay leaves

Salt and ground black pepper

2 cups cooked ditalini pasta

1 medium zucchini, chopped

4 cups coarsely chopped cabbage

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Basil sprigs, garnish, optional

In slow cooker combine broth, tomatoes, beans, carrots, celery, onion, thyme, sage, bay leaves and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.

Add ditalini, zucchini and cabbage about 30 minutes before soup is done cooking. Then. cover and cook 30 more minutes. Remove bay leaves and season, to taste, with salt and black pepper. Serve in bowls and sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top. Garnish with basil, if desired.


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