I've always been leery of rushing to a restaurant when it opens. I'd rather wait until the growing pains are over, but I broke this personal rule with Monello when it opened in November in Little Italy. Billed as the "naughty younger brother" of nearby Bencotto (the name translates to "rascal" in Italian), I thought Monello was more like a younger brother working to break out of an older sibling's shadow. The restaurant's strong start could be a fluke, but I hope it's a sign of many more great meals.
Monello (750 W. Fir St.) features an aperitivo from 4 to 7 p.m., meaning small bites served with drinks. The bites are at the whim of the chef, and range from a slice of pizza to octopus tossed in a simple marinade with peppers. With a generous handful of small plates brought out, the dishes easily soak up the cocktails. CityBeat's Kelly Davis covered the in-house vermouth in her Nov. 30 "Cocktail Tales" column. If I were you, I'd take very seriously Davis' recommendation to try the vermouth; I particularly liked the Corpse Reviver with sweet vermouth, cognac and brandy-braised apple.
I found the slice of mushroom pizza and the lupini beans to be unremarkable, but the beet gnocchi, octopus and roasted potatoes were winners. I was a little brokenhearted to find out that the gnocchi were not featured as a full-sized dish on the menu.
Although the menu has an extensive pizza selection, the slice in the aperitivo didn't generate confidence in a full pie, so we turned our attention elsewhere. Bread is made in-house, but it's best had in the panzerotti. Basically a mini-calzone, the bread is stuffed with tomatoes, basil and cheese and then fried. Crisp, but with a delicate crust unlike any calzone I've had, it's perfect with booze.
While big sibling Bencotto has a bigger pasta menu, Monello's spaghetti carbonara is not to be missed. It's creamy with addictive bits of pancetta and al dente pasta. Since we seemed to be following a theme of dishes to soak up the delicious cocktails, we headed to the polenta with spicy tomato pork ribs. While the polenta was slightly undercooked, I was slurping the ribs off the bone. Can't say they were especially spicy, but the ribs were tender, and the sauce was terrific.
If the drinks are good and the meal delicious, then hopes are high for dessert. Monello didn't disappoint with the isola galleggiante, the "floating island" dessert that had soft meringues served on top of custard. Custard can be hopelessly ordinary, but I nearly licked the plate this time. Same with the cinnamon gelato served with the frittelle di mele (fried apple rings). Like with the meringue, the apple rings were good, but completely outdone by the accompaniment.
In the weeks since I was there, lunch and breakfast have been added, along with a weekend brunch featuring produce from Little Italy's Mercato. I'm looking forward to seeing if little brother continues to hog the spotlight in the new year.