Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Neighbourhood icon earns namesake's smile

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So why did I end up at Mona Lisa that Saturday night? It wasn't the restaurant I'd started out for, but the situation was evolving into one of those critics' nightmares. You do everything right -- you check the menu on the restaurant's website; you make the reservation; you meet your friends at the appointed time, only to be greeted by a sign on the door informing you that, although Spuntino would be open that night, it would be closing a few days later. Permanently. So I had to scurry to find another restaurant for the friends I had in tow, and for today's column.

We were primed for Italian food, and Mona Lisa, which was only a short drive away, seemed a logical choice. As it happened, it turned out to be a good choice. There have been changes in this durable neighbourhood restaurant over its 30-year existence, with the extensions of a lounge on one side, a wine-oriented cantina on the other, and a pretty patio in front. It seems spiffier than when I last reviewed it, nine years ago (were there always white tablecloths?) and more spacious than I remember, with one wall of exposed pale brick, another of stucco and wood panelling, and paintings by local artists on both.

Prices have risen, inevitably, but so has the kitchen's performance, significantly. Starters range from $7 for bread with roasted garlic and olive oil to $18 for veal carpaccio, but an easily overlooked part of the menu offers some terrific buys. Even if there were nothing else to praise they'd deserve a medal for the Accompaniments -- a list of mini portions enticingly priced from $5 to $7, which can be ordered either as sides or (as we did) as starters. We had an assortment, and every one of them was marvellous.

The three huge scallops in garlic butter, and the three truly jumbo shrimp in garlic and olive oil were all cooked to juicy perfection. Also perfect were big veal meatballs in tomato sauce, fresh manila clams in white wine, spicy house-made Calabrese sausage and the slightly bitter (not for everyone's taste) rapini. I could happily make a dinner of all of them, all by myself.

On the other hand, I'd hate to miss the mostly house-made pastas which are cooked al dente and cloaked in light, well-seasoned sauces ($15 to $26). Something as simple as linguine with garlic, basil and olive oil, which either garnishes or precedes some of the entrées, was as soul-satisfying as the carbonara of chewy buccatini with pancetta, romano cheese, and -- perched on top -- a raw egg yolk in half an egg shell, to be mixed in just before eating. Other top choices were linguine pescatore with manila clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp and scallops in a light marinara sauce and the veal, ricotta and mozzarella-stuffed cannelloni. And for something completely different, try the spaghetti ubriachi, which translates as drunken spaghetti, cooked in red wine to a deep scarlet and tossed with anchovies, garlic, basil, romano and flakes of chili. Not only a rare find (at least in these parts), but a tangy delight to boot.

The list of entrées is relatively limited (no lamb or beef) and those I tried, while not bad, weren't on a par with the starters or the pastas ($22 to $32). Although the quality of the veal was good, the vitello dolce's frangelico cream sauce was too dolce for my taste but, in fairness, the friend who ordered it loved it. We agreed, however, that the veal grande was seriously short of seasoning. The stuffing of pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese in a breaded, fried chicken breast lacked cohesion, but the dish might have been saved if the surface had some crunch.

The menu also incorporates Mezzo Mezzo, one of the features in the adjoining Cantina -- rice rolls that are supposed to be an Italian take on sushi, and we did try the Arcobaleno, or rainbow roll ($13). Nice, but -- apart from a delightful garnish of lemony potato cubes -- it tasted Japanese, not Italian, and if I had it to do over I'd choose the unmistakably Italian Paisano roll, with mortadella, Calabrese salami, gorgonzola and pine nuts.

The pizza was disappointing. The toppings were OK, but skimpy and the crust was almost flabby -- all the more surprising since the one I'd had a few years ago was memorable, and it was pizza that gave Mona Lisa its start in life (from $14 small to $24 large).

When it comes to desserts the kitchen runs out of steam, at least with those I tried. There are the usual cheesecakes and ornate layered concoctions, but we wanted to stay Italian all the way. A mistake, as it turned out. The tiramisu had no taste of booze, or much of anything else, and the lady fingers were dry ($8). The cannoli was a disgrace, with a near-impenetrable pastry, and a barely sweetened ricotta filling ($1.95). Coffee, on the other hand, was top-notch.

I'd give them another medal for their wines, not only for the vast, impressive selection (over 250), or even for the availability of so many by the glass, but also for the wide variety of two-ounce tasters, from $2.25 for an Argentinian chardonnay to $11.25 for a chianti classico riserva ducale, gold label Ruffino. They also have individual little cans of Ciao prosecco at $6 each. Don't sneer -- it may not be Dom Perignon (they have that, too) but it's nice, light and appropriately bubbly.

Mona Lisa has the warm and unpretentious ambiance of family-owned restaurant, and the friendly welcome and attentive service reflect that warmth. Mona herself still looks down over the room from her lofty perch, smiling mysteriously but approvingly on her perpetually packed house. Reservations would be wise.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2012 D3

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Updated on Friday, September 21, 2012 at 12:13 PM CDT: adds map, adds fact box

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