Have a taste of old Milan at Little Italy’s Monello
By Kelley Carlson
Bencotto’s “naughty little brother” is growing up. Monello has made a name for itself since opening next door to its older “sibling” in Little Italy in 2012, already earning accolades from patrons and food critics.
“San Diego has shown interest and passion for Milanese food culture,” co-owner Valentina Di Pietro said in a news release. “Guests are fascinated by our unique offering of homemade recipes, aperitivo, house-made vermouth, nowhere-to-be-found products, and now handcrafted sandwiches. Monello has become a destination for people who want to experience a taste of Milan.”
The eatery showcases a slice of the Italian lifestyle — it’s sophisticated, yet still casual and relaxed. With no pressure to hurry through a meal, guests can bask in the sunshine that passes through the floor-to-ceiling windows, or find seclusion in the banquette, while listening to lounge music.
A patio provides views of tree-lined Fir Street and nearby San Diego Bay. Glass partitions allow people to feel as if they’re part of San Diego’s street scene.
As night falls, spotlights softly emphasize each table, along with depictions of the Duomo di Milano cathedral along the walls.
Patrons often commence their visits with a stop at the bar, many of them willing to sample the Sweet Vermouth, a 27-ingredient creation by mixologist Jennifer Queen. The exact components of the concoction are kept secret, but they do involve roots, bark, botanicals and herbs, and there are hints of cinnamon and citrus.
Visitors can also be tempted by the Panini al Latte (stuffed mini bites) displayed at the end of the bar. These light sandwiches consist of simple-yet-satisfying combinations such as San Daniele prosciutto and mozzarella, and mortadella with provolone cheese that is slightly melted.
Providing further allure are the pasticceria (pastries): There’s Cornetti, akin to a sweet croissant that’s dusted with sugars and contains fillings such as pistachio; and the Bomboloni, a doughnut filled with custard or whipped cream.
The inspiration behind Monello can be seen in the hallway around the corner from the bar, where there are images of Italian street scenes and a quote by Giuseppe Verde: “You may have the Universe. If I may have Italy.”
In the large refrigerators are huge hunks of meats and cheeses, many of them imported directly from the owners’ native land.
Those who come on the weekends can start their day with the Farmer’s Brunch. Monello acquires organic ingredients from the Little Italy Mercado and incorporates them into dishes such as the pesto-covered Monello Eggs Benedict; the Frittata Monello, filled with parma prosciutto, fontina and zucchini; Polenta e Uova with two sunny-side-up eggs over mortadella, yellow cornmeal polenta and fontina; and Pasticcio, a bread casserole with kale, onions and a parmesan sauce.
Guido Nistri, who co-owns Monello with his wife, said his favorite item is the Brunch Pizza with toppings of sunny-side-up eggs, bacon, spinach and cheese sauce on a house-made crust.
Patrons who arrive for lunch often choose the toasted paninis with filling choices, such as grilled zucchini, eggplant, speck and grilled jidori chicken. The sandwiches are served with sweet-potato chips.
A traditional Milanese aperitivo awaits customers 4-7 p.m. With each cocktail comes three to four complimentary small bites from the menu or by the whim of Executive Chef Fabrizio Cavallini. Occasionally, Cavallini introduces new creations in an effort to gather feedback for future menu items. “Our cook performs regularly every day for the customers, not for himself,” Nistri said.
These “piattini” rotate daily, and on a recent visit, they included Porcini Mushroom Crepes, Grilled Octopus, and Grilled Zucchini with Mint Aioli.
Aperitivo gradually turns into the dinner hour and many people stay for the more hearty selections. There’s an array of choices, including polenta, flatbreads, spaghetti, lightly fried foods, seasonal vegetable plates, roasted meats and seafoods, and thin-crust pizzas (including the Monello with spinach, roasted bell peppers, sausage and raspa dura cheese).
Address: 750 W. Fir St., Suite 102-B, San Diego
Phone: (619) 501-0030
The Vibe: Casual chic, relaxed
Signature Dishes: Raspa Dura, Spaghetti Carbonara, gnocchi, pizzas, Sweet Homemade Vermouth
Open Since: 2012
Patio Seating: Yes
Happy Hour: 4-7 p.m. daily
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to close Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to close Saturday and Sunday
On The Menu Recipe
Each week you’ll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. Just click Get The Recipe at the bottom of the story. This week: Monello’s Pasticcio
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