Posted On: 02/01/2017
When Brendan Marsden opened Modesto on The Hill 15 years ago, the tapas restaurant was a radical move in an area revered for its Italian heritage. Notwithstanding Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas down the street, Modesto was pretty much the only non-Italian restaurant within the 1.5-square-mile historic neighborhood and one of the few in the region serving exclusively Spanish cuisine.
Shuttering Modesto last August and replacing it eight weeks later with Mona’s, Marsden (who also owns Whitebox Eatery in Clayton) again challenged expectations. For one thing, there’s the tagline, “An American-Italian Joint,” meant to distinguish Mona’s from The Hill’s more upscale Italian-American restaurants. That explains why you’ll find appetizers like pickled shrimp, bacon-wrapped dates and smoked chicken lollipops on the menu alongside a fried green tomato salad and an antipasto salad made with kale. It’s why there are new takes on familiar dishes such as gnocchi, served here in a roasted corn cream sauce. It’s why wine – eight of which are on tap – is affordable (most bottles run $32) and served in short tumblers, as is the Italian way.
What you won’t find is Provel – or polka dots of fresh mozzarella – because Mona’s uses its own blend of cheese for its Roman-style pizzas. In a city known for a style that’s practically trademarked and where Neapolitan-style pizza with its strict rules (no oil in the dough!) and requisite bell-shaped brick oven has become increasingly popular, Mona’s sits somewhere in between. Marsden installed a brick-lined deck oven that can bake thin-crust pies at nearly 700 degrees in about four minutes.
Thin and crispy, lightly sauced and with none of the cheesy, oozy-gooeyness typical of their American cousin, these pies emphasize flavor over volume. Alone, they won’t satisfy big appetites without the addition of an appetizer or salad. Light eaters will find them perfectly pleasing.
You can build your own pie, but the 12 selections – half with red sauce, half with white sauce or olive oil – exemplify Mona’s unique spin. I rarely see green olives on a pizza, which is too bad, and never see Italian salsa verde, but both defined the Sausage & “Greens” pizza. The former “green” added a bit of sharpness; the latter enhanced the subtle tanginess of the light tomato sauce. Distinguishable from others made on The Hill, Mona’s house-made sausage had a finer texture with hints of sage. A pleasant hit of fennel came not from the sausage but from caramelized slices of the aromatic vegetable, complementing the olive’s briny punch.
The broccoli and potato pie, dressed simply with olive oil, wasn’t as odd as it might sound – potatoes are a rather common topping for Roman pizza. But while the broccoli was nicely charred, I wanted the same for the potatoes, which could have been sliced thinner to brown and attain a bit of crispiness.
There are a handful of fresh pastas, all coming from Midwest Pasta Co., including lasagna, spaghetti, linguine and pappardelle.
Like the restaurant, I assume Mona’s Lasagna was named after Marsden’s mother of Sicilian heritage. If so, thanks, Mom! If not, thanks anyway because it was one of the best lasagnas I’ve had in a while (sorry, Mom – also of Sicilian descent). The dish benefited from a sausage Bolognese, roasted mushrooms, bechamel and that proprietary cheese blend, all of which bubbled with steamy, aromatic appeal in a little cast-iron pan. But it was the noodle texture I liked most: crispy on top, chewy on the bottom.
The supremely rich pappardelle and gnocchi made for winter meals worthy of the calories. The former consisted of long, fat noodles bathed in Alfredo sauce punctuated by the earthiness of roasted mushrooms and toasted walnuts. A garnish of delicate, crispy sage provided the right complement to the creamy dish without overpowering.
My favorite of the three pastas I tried was the gnocchi, particularly for its distinctive creamy sauce with roasted corn and cheddar cheese. Or was it the chunks of roasted pork belly that shredded with the gentlest poke of the fork? Or the sweetness of the caramelized onion against the rich meat? Or the pillowy softness of the gnocchi that didn’t disintegrate in a hot cast-iron serving pan, perhaps?
The fried green tomato salad suffered from a lack of excitement. Thick wedges – not slices – of flavorless tomatoes were difficult to eat, surrounded by a dull mixture of butter lettuce, house-made cheese and canned black olives. A white balsamic vinegar dressing provided the only liveliness.
Marsden designed and constructed Mona’s interior with his staff, allowing them to remain employed during the transition. While the “joint” moniker seems more whimsy than reality, especially given the quality of food, Marsden has again captured something simple and trendy and turned it into a concept that may last another 15 years.
AT A GLANCE
5257 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, 314.772.8272, monasjoint.com
Bright and open, family-friendly space that encourages chatting and lingering
$9 to $18
Mon. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
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