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The Monello pizza; photography by Andrea Bricco

Ciao, Baby

by Kersten Wehde | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | March 28, 2013

Like nose-to-tail eating and food trucks, our understanding and support of anything calling itself “street food”—no matter its exotic provenance—has evolved, taking the trend from stigmatic to fashionable. This is grazie in large part to modern yet authentic spots like Monello, the latest Little Italy joint to conquer and kill any lingering vision of the neighborhood as a place where red-checked tablecloths go to die.

As the little brother (a naughty one, per the translation) of Bencotto, the one-door-up home run widely extolled as San Diego’s best Italian, Monello doesn’t waste time trying to best its sibling. It doesn’t have to; Mom doesn’t have a favorite. Ebullient owner Valentina DiPietro, one-third of the Monello team (along with husband Guido Nistri and chef/pasta savant Fabrizio Cavallini), notes that the recession hit Italy hard, and street food—miniature calzones, fried calamari, gelato—emerged a surprising victor: “Italians will spend 600 euros for shoes, but food…” Inspired by the concept of social, simple street dining in the global design capital of Milan, the trio crafted Monello’s delightful lineup of geographically genuine yet slightly rebellious dishes, none of which broach the $24 mark.

In spite of the quick service and general bustle inside (especially at happy hour), diners are encouraged to eat and drink “like an Italian,” savoring housemade grappa infusions and sweet vermouth concoctions. Much has been made of Monello’s obsession with sweet vermouth, blended in- house by local mixology virtuosa Jennifer Queen with 27 ingredients. Of several cocktails, staff invariably recommend the Rock & Twist, vermouth served on the rocks with a twist of orange. The old-school aperitif turns out to be far more than a glorified mixer; it’s a somewhat spicy treat.

Treats abound here, from the rosemary- and salt-dusted lupini beans that kick off every meal to the bulbous panzerotti, lightly fried mini calzones oozing with tomato and cheese. Then there’s the raspa dura, the young lodiggiano cheese that serves as the omnipresent Kevin Bacon ingredient of the Monello menu. They’re rightly proud of this Lombardy-exported cheese, and the place is positively metastatic with the stuff—flaked in a paper cone, piled high atop the namesake pizza with roasted bell peppers and sausage, sliced razor-thin in the mustardy zucchini carpaccio. A back hallway is lined with refrigerators stocked with 70-pound wheels of it and wild boar salami. (They’re locked, in case you surreptitiously try to pry one open.) In a less genuine environment, this over-reliance on one ingredient might seem unimaginative; here, it just feels right. It’s almost disappointing that there are no raspa dura desserts.

The lengthy menu is stocked with comforts, from the coppa arrosto—roasted pork neck with a tender, coma-inducing heap of gravy-drowned mashed potatoes and balsamic cipollini onions that pop in the mouth like grapes—to the peppery carbonara al dente. White or yellow polenta is creamy, just a bit sticky and accompanied by a choice of sides. (Opt for the spicy tomato pork ribs, exquisitely juicy and plied from the bone with the gentlest effort.)

Like the street-gone-chic dishes, the atmosphere inside Monello strikes a comfortable balance between sleek and casual Italian, with the lofty ceilings of an industrial museum café (appropriate, considering the triptych of the Duomo and the depiction of the Galleria hanging on the walls).

As for la dolce vita, this is not the place to skip dessert. Superb gelato, pine nut pie and isola galleggiante (divine meringue with crème anglaise and berries) compete with those sugary cocktails for final-course status, and everyone wins. From start to finish, Monello achieves what other restaurants spend years and thousands to create: a serious restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

750 W. Fir St., San Diego

Tue.-Sun., 11:30am-close; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10am-3:30pm

What It Costs
Starters, $3-$14; entrées, $12-$24; desserts, $7-$9

Ciao, Chow
From 4-7pm, buy a drink at the bar or on the patio and enjoy mini plates like octopus ceviche on the house.

Where to Sit
The fishbowl seats closest to West Fir Street are ideally situated for watching and being watched. Come summer, the patio will offer some of the best seats in Little Italy.

Modern Bromance
With big bro Bencotto next door, the Q Building is fast becoming S.D.’s all-in-one Italian outpost.