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Mangia at Monello

Bencotto’s offshoot takes it to the streets




750 West Fir Street,
Little Italy




Raspa dura

Spaghetti carbonara

Bencotto pizza

Gordon Gekko wouldn’t approve. A competitor trying to collect money within five miles of your own collection point? They’re to be loathed, undermined, relieved of body parts. And yet popular northern Italian restaurant Bencotto opened up a large northern Italian restaurant next door.

Nuts… or a clever way to expand?

Surely, an expansion. Like building a guesthouse out back and calling it Chez Rear. That’s not to say the two aren’t unique. They are, in subtle shades. What Bencotto lacked (a bar scene), Monello provides. Carbohydrates star at both (Bencotto’s fresh-daily pastas, Monello’s pizzas). At Monello, small bites are multiplied, formality diminished.

Bencotto won over Little Italy with modern design (these clichéd streets looked like Disney’s vision of Rome, circa 1960), chef Fabrizio Cavallini’s saucy talents, and the host-charm of the husband-wife owners, Valentina Di Pietro (Milan’s Audrey Hepburn) and Guido Nistri (your sardonic uncle).

Monello’s big idea is street food. If it’s served near a propane tank in Milan, it’s found here. But with polished silverware and fine architecture, can it be called street food? Is a classy joint serving poor man’s cheese like the time the orchestra played with Metallica? Regardless, Nistri has a story for every dish, each related to their original home (where he ran a high-end bistro and she handled P.R. for Dolce & Gabbana).

The teensy fried calzones called panzerotti are just like those sold by Giuseppina Luini at her famous shop in the shade of the Duomo. Raspa dura—shavings of young cow’s milk cheese, seen as unfinished and inferior—started as a “treat” for rustic poor. Now chef Cavallini stands in Monello’s fancy kitchen, shaving a wheel. The trio of spaghettis is what you eat in Milan when your blood-alcohol level is higher than your IQ.

Speaking of. The bar signature is housemade rosso vermouth. Vermouth? That bitter stuff? On tap? Yes, but the Italians drink it sweet, a tradition first commercialized by Italian companies Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. Before Americans decided flavorless, skinny drinks were the bomb, a martini used to be more vermouth than gin, and a Manhattan more rosso than whiskey. It’s excellent on the rocks. Tastes like bark, roots, and all sorts of aromatic forest loam, ground and mixed with citrus peels. It also anchors the Negroni and the classic Corpse Reviver (brandy-soaked apple, Cognac, and vermouth).

Décor at Monello is urban restraint. Concrete pillars. Concrete flooring. Exposed AC tubes. A lot of gray, highlighted by more gray. Even the salt and pepper shakers are immaculately clean (one of my telltales for restaurant sanitation). Not a baroque element in the place, save for maybe the triptych of a gothic Italian cathedral, painted with ghostly luminescence by a local artist.

Every meal at Monello begins with lupini beans. Just think of the yellow, waxy buggers as Italian edamame. With garlic and rosemary salt, they squeak at the bite like fresh cheese curds. I could eat them all day.

The small bites at Monello are the way to go, heretofore a noted path to nirvana. The raspa dura is a brilliant snack—at once grainy and creamy, so thin it evaporates at first tonguing. The huge selection of cured meats—oh lord please try the finocchiona (fennel salami) and soppressata di cinghiale (boar)—is from Nistri’s pals in New York. They don’t normally export their goods; exceptions are made for comrades.  

Off the rolled bites menu—not unlike Jewish aram sandwiches—we moan over the one stuffed with burrata, arugula, and Parma prosciutto. That silky goop of buffalo cream is cut perfectly by the Parma’s salty, aged brininess. We try all three dye-pressed spaghettis because, well, Bencotto aces all things pasta. The traditional aglio e olio pepperoncino (garlic, EVOO, Fresno peppers, bread crumbs) is very good, if subtle, with uni-orange strands of spag. We taste our first misstep with the cacio e pepe. With thick cream sauce and a mound of raspa dura, it’s simply too much cheese (or maybe we’re not drunk-in-Milan enough). But that carbonara with bacon (not guanciale, which would be traditional, but that’s okay), pecorino, eggs, and black pepper? Amazing sober or ubriaco.

We didn’t find a ton to rave about from the fully composed portion of the menu. The whole branzino (sea bass) was average, a touch fishy roasted with the skin on. The Jidori chicken has a very good flavor, but dry. Monello seems to know this and serves it with a side of delicious olive oil. Speaking of delicious oils, order the focaccia bread. Strangest I’ve ever seen—just plain bread, like toast points or canapés. But it’s got that hit of rosemary, and the olive oil mixture (garlic, Parmesan, herbs)—well, you could drink that and be terribly happy until they entered you as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Barring any hang-ups (“Oh Jeeves I just can’t it has suction cups on its arm thingies!”), the octopus is a must-try. Chef lets the meat soak in olive oil for 28 years or something (EVOO has monoglycerides, which tenderize meat), so the cephalopod cuts and tastes like a pillow of filet mignon. Served over arugula and fennel, it’s a wonder.

We tried two pizzas. The Margherita—Neapolitan-thin crust, discs of fresh moz, basil leaves—was serviceable; not the best I’ve had. The dough had zero char, a tad undercooked. But on return we ordered the Bencotto—moz, ricotta, plus Bencotto’s signature sauce (cream, tomato, and guanciale)—and it floored us. Good enough to shut up your most manic, un-shut-up-able friend for a few precious moments.

As for Monello being its own competition—well, that’s fine. Because minor missteps aside, very few restaurants are even playing at the same level.

Troy Johnson is the Editor-at-Large and Food Critic of San Diego Magazine. Contact him at tjohnson@sandiegomagazine.com or follow him on Twitter:

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