Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Red prawn at Monello in Minneapolis
Red prawn at Monello
The red prawn at the new Italian spot Monello is nothing short of terrific: fire red, big as a banana, sourced from the depths of the Mediterranean, and served with the tasty bits raw and dressed in spicy charmoula oil, the head fried and staring up at you beadily. Served with pickled ramps and paper-thin leaves of crispy nettles, it’s one of the most splendid dishes of the year: diaphanous, gelatinous, sensuous, sea tasting, sweet and vaporous, yet bold and spicy. That’s one knee-weakening prawn. And for $19, it should be.
Nineteen bucks for one shrimp? Well, yes. This is what happens when the deep pockets of Jester Concepts (Borough and Parlour) meet the world-class ambitions of former La Belle Vie chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp at Hotel Ivy, the boutique property making a bid to be downtown Minneapolis’s top stopover for the big-buck elite (the Rolling Stones stayed there). For further context, we can’t ignore Minnesota’s head-scratching crudo boom. Where there used to be exactly zero restaurants specializing in the Italian preparation of raw or lightly cooked fish, we now have three, including Monello, the first to open, just-debuted Il Foro (downtown), and Lela (Bloomington). Two more are next: Parella and Scena Tavern (both in Uptown). I guess that’s how Minneapolis suddenly comes down with a case of the $20 prawns.
But the tinier shrimp at Monello are crazy delicious, too! The langoustine is nearly as good as that red prawn, a lone wee fellow, pale as a sunrise cloud, washed with olive oil in which black garlic has been fried, and served with chive puree, pink peppercorns, and more olive oil. The peppery olive oil glaze and the prickling tingles of pink peppercorn magnify the sweetness of the langoustine. And the ocean, inherent in the shrimp’s dewy flesh, is emphasized by the herbal simplicity of more fresh chives as thin as fissures in glass. It’s pure bliss, and at $12 you’ll want to split it among a few people. Sadly, you cannot because it’s too small (about two bites), so prepare yourself mentally.
Monello’s other crudo can be less appealing: I do not understand or like the way scallops were done with raw mushrooms, porcini powder, frisee, and a sort of thick mushroom sauce made with soy, the whole thing tasting like fresh wood smells, which is unexpected, and not thrilling. The sea urchin with smoked marrow and apple likewise disappeared into a vague cloud of mid-palate flavors. It’s tempting to order everything on the crudo menu, and if you’ve got the funds, I say go for it.
The menu is organized in the traditional Italian pattern, with crudo, primi, pastas, and entrées. The primi come off as little more than well-chosen objects presented with care. Take the panzanella, a handful of cherry tomatoes, blanched and peeled, arranged in a precise way with a few tender cubes of housemade bread and a tiny bunch of mache; it was delicate and restrained. The beet salad with macerated strawberries was a happy little song about little perfect bites: a yellow beet quarter, creamy clouds of fresh mozzarella, and wee greens with stems the color of flamingoes. All the primi I tried on various visits were technically unimpeachable, yet never exciting.
The pasta and risotto, however, were exciting, and often thrilling. The squid-ink risotto could hold its own with that of any multi-Michelin-starred French destination. Each grain of rice was substantial and separate, buttery and full of that particular iodine-and-sea-spray taste of squid ink. A line of deeply flavored mussels and itty-bitty, ultra-crisp fried calamari made the dish an essay in sensuous textures. All of the filled pastas excelled at contrasting the textures of melting and chewy, and the flavors were vivid. The fava bean tortelli was one of the best pastas I’ve had in Minnesota, as was the cappelletti with morels and smoked mozzarella. Even the bucatini all’Amatriciana, among the simplest pasta dish anywhere, was a superlative gem. The kitchen makes the long tubes of pasta by hand, from semolina and water, and dresses them with a simple sauce of onions, tomato, guanciale, garlic, and Calabrian chilies. The result was spicy, rustic, wholesome, unified, and energetic. If you are a Minnesota pasta fanatic, you need to drop everything and order this dish.
Italian beverage lovers will be equally pleased. Monello debuted with the city’s best Italian-everything list, including the best Italian wine-by-the-glass list, best Italian dessert wines, best amaro-based cocktails, best grappa list . . . you get the idea. The wine list isn’t terrifically long but pulls off the neat trick of having something for every palate, including obscure wines for oeno-brainiacs: Falanghina, Frappato, Vitovska—they’re all here.
The big entrées, for their part, seemed more like boxes that needed checking for hotel guests than passion projects. There’s a steak, a large pork chop, predictable halibut corseted in pancetta, and then, the odd man out: an excellent lobster on a risotto so permeated with butter and cheese that it quickly became its own cheese course—which was very delicious for the first few bites.
The desserts were silly and never delicious, and seemed to follow the Instagram logic that if they’re visually stunning, things are going right. The best I tried was the nasturtium panna cotta, in which a panna cotta with no particular flavor was decorated with strawberry segments, white chips, foams, flowers, leaves, and whatnot till it looked like some modernist fairy garden. There was a dessert with the title of “caramelized white chocolate,” which was a tube of raspberry gelee wrapped about something with no taste, and decorated by massive, soft bread lumps. Another dessert was a sort of bowl of bubbles strewn with thyme called “lemon and mascarpone semifreddo.” It tasted like herbal tea and arrived with a lonely cookie submerged in the tea.
The biggest surprise of that dish was the way the server insisted that it was exactly like tiramisu. He was wrong, which wasn’t surprising. The servers at Monello are of little help. Asked for recommendations, they just tell you that everything is wonderful. Prodded for specific information about an already-delivered dish, they disappear and return with an uninformative laundry list that fails to clarify what you’re eating: Is this a sorbet, or something else? If it is a sorbet, what flavor is it? (I never learned.) Servers also interrupt guests’ conversations incessantly, and they try to seize your half-finished plates whenever they’re not interrupting. Service improves at the lobby bar, which, inexplicably, has its own name (Venetia). Here, the staff is adept at reading their guests and answering questions forthrightly.
Now let’s get to the unavoidable insider-directed part of this review. Longtime Minnesota diners: Can you recall a formal Italian restaurant with exquisite pastas and an irresistible wine list where the best experiences were always at the bar? Yes, I was overcome again and again when eating at Monello with the sense that D’Amico Cucina had come back to life.
D’Amico Cucina ruled Twin Cities dining for some 22 years. Though it closed in 2009, it left its DNA all over our restaurant culture. Not only did Monello’s chef Mike DeCamp start there, he did so under Tim McKee (La Belle Vie, Libertine, Smalley’s, Barrio) and aside Josh Thoma (Smack Shack, Il Foro). The iconic Italian restaurant’s sister spots, Lurcat and Masa, are still going strong, as are the two-dozen little Italian quick-serve D’Amico & Sons. Cucina’s other most-notable alumni chef is Isaac Becker (112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Burch Steak), though you’d be hard-pressed to find any restaurant in Minneapolis without some Cucina connection. Doug Flicker of Piccolo spent time in the Cucina kitchen as a cook, and Jordan Smith started Black Sheep pizzerias after laboring many years for the D’Amicos. If all Americans are within six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, all Minneapolis restaurants are at most two from D’Amico Cucina.
And now it’s back! Not really—but it lives on, recognizably, at Monello. I hesitated to ask chef Mike DeCamp about the obvious comparisons between the two restaurants, but then I did anyway. I feared it was like asking someone, “Do you know that your new girlfriend looks just like your ex-wife?” “Is that so bad?” DeCamp said in return. “When we were talking about this place, that place came up, a lot. That was where I met Tim, that’s where I got started, and it felt like that was something Minneapolis could use again. We all have very fond memories of D’Amico Cucina—they had great Italian food there. I’m happy to make something similar to what was going on there. But now we have free valet.” Which they do, right on 11th Street. And the best shrimp in town. Actually, the two best shrimp in town.
1115 2nd Ave. S., Mpls., 612-353-6207, monellompls.com