Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Ignoring family ties at Monello
Taking the sister act next door to Little Italy's Bencotto
When an eatery is a sister operation to another restaurant, it’s hard not to associate it with its sibling. That’s particularly true in the case of Monello (750 West Fir Street, Suite 102-B, Little Italy), a new-ish spot specializing in Italian bar and street snacks, and everyman standards. Not only is it in the same neighborhood, it’s right next-door to owners Guido Nistri and Valentina Di Pietro’s first restaurant, Bencotto. I’m a big fan of that spot and believe few Italian restaurants so simply yet elegantly represent that region’s style of cooking while delivering a refined yet unpretentious experience. Given that, it’s tough not to hold Monello to my high Bencotto standards, but after multiple visits to the former, I’ve been able to sort out my opinions on Guido and Valentina’s youngest child.
Monello, by design, is more casual. This works in the servers’ favor as they are just as friendly as the waiters and waitresses next door, but in an environment where that openly sociable style feels perfectly suited. They’re also fast. On each occasion, my party’s food was delivered only a few minutes after being ordered. Ditto cocktails.
Despite the fact the servers are so expedient, you can take your time if you so desire and linger over a second (or third) drink like the citric Scotch cocktail, Blood and Sand, crafted with house-made vermouth from mixologist Jen Queen, or perhaps a scoop of pistachio gelati “drowned” in chocolate sauce. Or, combine dessert and a nightcap with a scoop of sorbetti in a pool of vermouth. I can’t take credit for that last one as the staff rightly recommends that, but having sampled the vermouth on its own, I can tell you that Queen's fortified wine is a cut above and tastes almost like a negroni all on its own. No matter what you opt for, time spent in that dining room, which is much less crowded on weeknights than Bencotto (or most Little Italy restaurants for that matter), is time well spent. It’s easy to share a conversation and menu items that, by and large, are better shared than bogarted.
If you order the pasta, ask for a split or two plates. The portions are bigger than they at first appear. Monello swears by its carbonara and theirs is a nice version of this classic, but temperature was an issue when I try it (it cooled and congealed very quickly) and the house-made pasta was a bit shy of al dente. No matter. After tasting another signature pasta entrée—aglio, olio, peperoncino—I’ll never be able to order anything else on return visits. Nothing more than spaghetti, olive oil, plenty of garlic and a similarly generous amount of Fresno pepper, it’s unapologetically spicy and absolutely fantastic. The addition of toasted breadcrumbs gives it texture and added substance, taking it to new heights.
Another item they’re bullish on at Monello is panezerotti, mini calzones that are popular bar snacks in Italy. Over there, they are given as free rewards to those purchasing drinks and barstool real estate. In Little Italy, a trio will cost you eight dollars US. One dining companion of mine said they speak to the little fat kid in all of us. Having been that little fat kid and remembering how incredible the thought of Totino’s pizza rolls sounded, I had to agree. Essentially, that’s what these are, but with a much better crust cooked to golden brown perfection. Warm, stretchy mozzarella awaits inside along with tomato sauce that, in my opinion, is doled out a bit too skimpily, but tastes great all the same.
My chubby inner young ‘un also fell for a paper cone filled with sheets of young Lodigiano cheese so thin you can nearly see through them. They make for a nice thing to nibble on while waiting for larger dishes, as do bright golden lupiini beans. Served in a bowl and popped from a fibrous shell like edamame, they are salty, earthy and one of the best freebies in town.
Not in the mood for pasta, pizza bites or a cone of formaggio? Order the coppa arrosto. A Thanksgiving-like plate of roasted pork neck, it embraces the palate like a warm hug from an Italian nonna. Several substantial slices half-covered in a tangy, meaty gravy sit atop a large mound of mashed potatoes. Combine the pork and starch, then add on a sweet-and-sour balsamic vinegar-glazed Cippolini onion for the perfect bite. Less stunning on the other white meat front is a piadine (think of a wrap-style sandwich or party app) stuffed with bland porchetta and far too much arugula. One can always add salt to wake the pork up, but there’s no getting rid of the olive oil glugged on during plating. Those with lighter appetites or less carnivorous tastes will appreciate the polipo alla griglia, a salad of celery, shaved fennel, and grilled baby octopus tentacles. I’ve had better cephalopod of late, but despite an inability to nab best-of status, this is a nice dish that provides far more octopus than most similar offerings in town.
Monello is charming and fun, but it’s no Bencotto. Then again, it’s not supposed to be. If choosing between the two, I’d still hit up the elder sister most nights, but Monello wasn’t made to compete with its predecessor. It was created to provide a different dining experience guided by the same principles. It does so, and it does so very nicely, giving visitors more laid back environs and a menu that’s simultaneously true to its boot nation roots and a less traditional addition to our Little Italia.