By Bob Sacks |
Hiding in plain sight? I have driven down Broad Street in Red Bank hundreds of times, but must confess that I paid little notice to the modest storefront housing Monticello, an Italian/Mediterranean restaurant, until I set out to dine there recently. I suppose many of us focus on what is new and different, and tend to overlook what is familiar; thus, this charming dinner destination, which has been at this location for eight years, flew under my radar. A recent tip from a foodie friend corrected that oversight and I was pleased to have finally “discovered” it.
The softly lit room is done in a warm, cream-colored Tuscan style. One long wall of banquettes is decorated with mirrors, the other side with tables and large paintings.
From the extensive menu we chose a starter of P.E.I Mussels ($13), steamed in a parsley, saffron, white wine and pancetta broth, served with grilled Tuscan bread for sopping up the flavorful juices. Grit-free and sweet tasting, they were a bit on the small side.
From a small offering of nightly specials, the Asian Calamari Fritti ($13) was flat-out delicious. A large portion of fried tentacles and rings were coated with a honey-spice glaze, and seasoned with sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. The greaseless, sweet and savory pieces were addictively crunchy, and drew raves from all at our table. This was the dish of the night. In a follow-up phone call we learned that it is a frequent special, but if it is not offered on the night of your visit, a polite request will likely be honored. Don’t miss this!
A large bowl of Straciatella ($8), spinach egg drop soup with rice, in a chicken consommé, served with a cheese topped toasted baguette, was rich and deeply flavored, but was weighted down by an excessive amount of rice.
We split an entrée special of the evening, Pasta Primavera ($24) as a middle course. Al dente pappardelle, tossed with asparagus, peas, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, pancetta, and roasted red pepper, in a light white wine sauce was pleasant enough, but with the addition of the proffered parmesan cheese and a turn or two of the pepper mill, it was elevated to the next level.
Pounded flat, and lightly breaded, Chicken Cutlet Milanese ($24), topped with a tricolor salad, red roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, and creamy burrata cheese, and then finished with garlic aioli and a shitake balsamic reduction, was large for two. We enjoyed the contrast of the warm, crisp chicken and the cool salad.
There is a Fresh Catch of the Day Puttanesca Style (MP), and the night of our visit it was Flounder ($33). It is served in a light filletto di pomodoro sauce with Kalamata olives and capers, and per the menu, with octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams, on a bed of creamy pancetta risotto drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. A substantial piece of perfectly juicy and moist filet rested atop the risotto, and was ringed with the shellfish, but we could not find any of the advertised pieces of octopus or shrimp anywhere on the plate or diced in the rice.
A signature dish, panko crusted, seared Stuffed Chicken Breast ($25), was filled with prosciutto, spinach, mushrooms and mozzarella, and finished with a wild mushroom Marsala sauce. Fork-tender with layers of flavors, this was an excellent preparation. It came with a side of white truffle oil, parmesan, sea salt shoestring fries which were sinfully delicious and highly recommended; order this as a side with any entrée, and try to not finish them!
Happily, Monticello is BYO, and the cheerful and accommodating service extended to serving our wine as well as our food. A 2013 Littorai Charles Heintz Chardonnay exhibited a good balance between fruity, creamy, California juice, and a mineral backbone with restrained oak. 2011 Passopisciaro Gardiola, an Italian chardonnay, had notes of honey and spice, but was a little light for my taste. Both wines covered the appetizers and the pasta course. For reds, we opened a pair of California Pinot Noirs. Brought out of curiosity, a 1995 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard was amazingly fresh and fruity, and not overblown. Showing its age with mature grace and elegance, it has years of life left. It actually got even better in the glass. Wow! Conversely, a 2015 Rivers Marie Bearwallow Vineyard was disappointing. The nose was muted, fruit not apparent, and finish short. I would revisit this in five years, but am not optimistic.
In our quest for hot new restaurants, we sometimes overlook the established ones, and miss out on a good meal, and it would be a shame to overlook Monticello. With its homey Italian/Mediterranean dishes and smooth service, it is worthy of a visit.
69 Broad St.,
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the Lifestyles section of the August 3 – 10, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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