Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mixing it up at Monticchio

Lots of good, some not-so-good on old-school Italian comfort food menu

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THE high-ceilinged dining room is attractive in a sleekly modern fashion, with walls of forest green and pale brick, and white cloths on the table -- under glass, granted. It can feel a little cramped when full, but it's where the tables for four are located -- there, or in the lounge on an upper level. If there are only two of you, the little lounge to the right of the entrance has round tables for two in a cosier, quieter setting.

Monticchio's ambience suggests contemporary Italian cooking, but the menu tells a different story.

It had been almost seven years since my last visit, at which time the kitchen's performance was decidedly mixed. My return was prompted partly by several favourable reports, and partly because the menu was just what I wanted that nasty night. You know the kind -- old-school Italian comfort food, lots of red sauces, redolent of tomato, garlic and olive oil, and nary a trend among them.

Small plates? Fuggedaboutit. These hefty portions will easily feed two, and many of them were good enough to earn another half star since my last review.

Dinners start beautifully with freshly baked little bread twists. And if you want to continue with what may be the single best dish on the menu, have the wonderful involtini appetizer of eggplant strips rolled around ricotta, mozzarella and romano, and baked under a marinara sauce ($6.99). The calamari are pretty good -- lightly breaded, not too chewy, with a nice tzatziki dip ($8.99), but the mussels, alas, have gone the way of so many other mussels. The garlicky white wine and marinara sauce (with a choice of mild, medium or hot) was delicious, but the mussels themselves were flannelly, flavourless and juiceless ($8.50).

Pastas, though, were all cooked perfectly al dente, and although tomato-based sauces predominate, they were well balanced, light and non-acidic (most from $9.99 to $14.99). There was a change of menus between my visits, and some of the more interesting and challenging pastas had been dropped, among them the orechiette with tiny meatballs alla Barese. Actually, it wasn't available even before the menu change, but the spaghetti with big but light-textured meatballs that we had instead was thoroughly satisfying. It would have been even better with a sprinkling of Parmesan but, alas, the only Parmesan we could have was a jar of that powdery stuff.

Cannelloni offer a choice of three fillings or, if preferred (since there are three to an order), one of each. The best of them was ricotta with spinach and caramelized onions in a light rose sauce. The meat filling with marinara sauce was decent enough, but the ricotta and mozzarella filling was a bland, tasteless disappointment.

Another dropped dish was mushroom-stuffed gnocchi. Just as well, possibly. It, too, wasn't available before the menu change, but that night's compromise dish of gnocchi tossed with mushrooms didn't work. The tomato basil sauce (like all the tomato sauces here) was nice, but the gnocchi were heavy and rather gluey, and the mushrooms tasted as though they'd been added as an afterthought.

Entrées, which range from $14.99 to $21.99, include a good, lightly dressed salad, capriciously dotted by good kalamata olives (none in one serving, three in another). Most are either bedded on a pasta or paired with a side of really delicious, flavourful rice, which tasted as though it had been cooked in stock and was dotted with wee bits of ham and mushrooms.

Chicken portafoglio was top-notch, a juicy breast layered with provolone, capicollo (with a bit of a bite), basil and sun-dried tomatoes and glazed in a light rose sauce. The Italian sausage grilled with red and green peppers was good but it's cured, not fresh sausage, and it packs a spicy-hot wallop you might not expect. Lemon veal uses pale, almost fork-tender veal but the sauce was too lemony for me.

Although the linguine di mare is primarily a pasta garnished with crabmeat, shrimp and mushrooms, it is listed among the entrées. The tiny shreds of real (not fake) crabmeat tended to get lost in the tangle of linguine, but the shrimp were big and plump, and the dish as a whole, simply dressed with olive oil and garlic, was lovely.

Monticchio started life as a wee pizza joint on the other side of Osborne, and the pizzas are still worth trying. There's a choice of thin or traditional crusts -- the traditional is medium-thin, nicely chewy and flavourful (from $11.99 for 12 inches with pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers to $26.95 for 18 inches of the meat lovers).

"Monticchio's tiramisu" (as listed on a table card) turned out to be "La Grotta's" tiramisu. It also turned out to be made with layers of what tasted like sponge cake instead of lady's fingers -- tasty but hardly what we expected ($5.99).

There are only two red wines by the glass, one of them (ours) an unpleasantly acidic Shiraz, and the list of bottles isn't very lengthy, either. What has improved enormously over the years is the service, which was well trained and attentive. But (a sadly familiar story) when it's time to pay the bill, you may have to go looking for your server

Open daily for dinner, lunch Wednesday to Friday. Don't drop in on a weekend without a reservation.

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 November 15, 2012 C5


Updated on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 11:11 AM CST: adds map, adds fact box

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