If you were driving through the north end of Lincoln Square, you might miss I Monelli, a small Italian restaurant housed in an unremarkable building on Western Avenue. But, I'm here to tell you to slow down, park your car, and go in for a memorable meal.
First, grab a bottle of wine from the liquor store across the street because I Monelli is BYOB. I chose an affordable Chianti on my visit, and it paired nicely with the simple Southern Italian cuisine.
I Monelli's interior is simple. No more than 15 tables are covered with checkered cloths; daily specials are handwritten on a chalkboard; and the staff who greet you are warm and genuine. It's the kind of true Chicago joint that I think makes this city so specialthe ones that get little fanfare, but churn out truly fantastic food night after night for loyal customers who probably live right in the neighborhood. It's the kind of place you can go back to again and again and enjoy every time.
I started with an appetizer of fried balls of risotto and cheese, which sounded basically like one of my wildest dreams come true. They were tasty, but not flavorful enough that I'd waste the calories next time. Fortunately, it was all uphill from there.
I have a weak spot for gnocchi. My absolute favorite in the city comes from the kitchen at Pizza Rustica, which serves the most impossibly tender gnocchi I've ever eaten. No other gnocchi can compare to Pizza Rustica's, in my view. So, the gnocchi at I Monelli had a very tough act to follow when I ordered it. I will say it comes in a very close second to Pizza Rustica's gnocchi, which is a compliment of the highest order, coming from me. It's soft and doughy, cooked just right and drenched in a hearty tomato sauce with a dash of cream.
The Orecchiette con Spinaci was also a delicious surprise among I Monelli's pasta offerings. The al dente shells are drizzled in olive oil, and mixed with spinach and a healthy amount of garlic. It's kind of like a grown-up version of noodles with buttersimple and satisfying.
The pizza at I Monelli is the star of the show, so don't leave without sampling one (or three). Pizzas are sold by the quarter, half or whole. Even the quarter is quite large, and enough for two people to share if you're also having pastas and/or meat and fish. The potato rosemary pizza is really tasty, with thin slices of potato smothered in bubbly mozzarella and speckled with plenty of fresh rosemary. The crispy crust is brushed with olive oil for the perfect finish.
I had heard from a reliable source that the eponymous I Monelli pizza was the best on the menu, so, naturally, I sampled that one as well. This busy pizza is topped with chopped pepperoni, bits of sausage, sautéed onions and your choice of green pepper or jalapeño. When it arrived at my table, my first reaction was that it looked startlingly like a frozen Totino's supreme pizza. However, I can happily report that the I Monelli pizza tastes nothing like a mass-produced frozen version. It's got the same perfectly baked crispy crust as the potato rosemary pizza, and with all those tasty toppings, it really bursts with flavor. Don't be surprised if you find yourself vying for the last slice.
The dessert menu has all of the classic Italian staples like panna cotta, cannoli and gelato. Sadly, the profiteroles were sold out the night I was there, which I'll take as a testament to their quality. So, I opted for the tiramisu instead. It was creamy, not too sweet, and served in a cute little cup. The portion size is mercifully small, just enough to satisfy a sweet tooth at the end of a filling meal.
I learned the night of my visit that I Monelli was scheduled to be featured on Check Please!, so you can expect wait times for a table at this tiny pizzeria to be longer for a while, as the rest of the city comes to check out one of Lincoln Square's best (previously hidden) gems.
I Monelli is located at 5019 N. Western Ave.; call 773-561-8499 or visit www.imonelli.info .
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