Long before other old eateries began to fascinate me, Monte's on MacDougal Street cast its spell. It was so obviously old, so stuck in time, so of another era, I became obsessed with it. I knew it possessed gobs of unknown Village history. I've been there a couple times over the years, attracted like a moth to its bewitching neon sign. I wish the food was better than it was, but I was happy to return for my latest Eater "Who Goes There?" column.
Who Goes There? Monte's Trattoria
Monte's, the subterranean MacDougal Street eatery, has seen other MacDougal Street landmarks like the Gaslight, the Kettle of Fish, Rienzi's and San Remo come and go, is ten years older than nearby Cafe Reggio, and still it makes with the lasagna and antipasti.
It is actually part of a two-restaurant empire of old-timey Village tradition. Monte's is owned by the same Mosconi family that runs the 34-year-old Villa Mosconi just a block to the south (and a previous Who Goes There? subject), and serves up the same sort of black-jacketed, red-sauce comfort food. Very likely, the Mosconi clan's tenure is a fairly seamless continuation of whatever Italian fare has been served at this address since 1918—first as a place called Razzazco, then as Monte's, all seemingly with the quirk of being closed Tuesdays.
I can find out little about the joint's incarnations as Razzazco or Monte's (which name it appears to have adopted in the mid-'50s). Whoever Monte was, though, he left behind a gem of a facade, the crowning glory of which is a neon sign featuring the profile of a fat chef toting a laden tray. Once down the steps, through the breakfront and inside the single square dining room, one gets a vague picture—in spite of the ceiling of acoustical tiles and the fairly modern decor—of what copping a cheap spaghetti meal must have been like for hip Villagers gone by. It's a quiet and unpretentious place.
The walls at Monte's hold some interesting secrets. This is the sort of old restaurant that inspires sentimental oil portraits and you'll find a framed depiction of the place near the bar. There's also a black-and-white picture of the Mosconi parents, looking stout, short and grim. And, most surprisingly, a poster of The Beatles, signed by all four of the lads from Liverpool. Papa Mosconi, the father of current chef and owner Pietro, the waiter explained to me, used to have a restaurant in London and was friends with John Lennon.
Monte's is mentioned in a lot of guides to the city, so you get a lot of tourists here. "The steak is beautiful," an Aussie and his wife told me. They had been attracted by the TripAdvisor rating. "The lasagna is beautiful." Another family inside, on vacation, and with a kid who wore a snap-brimmed fedora, were back after having eaten there only the night before. I'm told, too, that you'll see the occasional celebrity and Yankee ballplayer eating here.
There are regulars, of course. An impressive silver-haired man in sweater vest and tie, who ate alone, checked his blackberry constantly and looked like he was the "mayor" of some block in Little Italy, was served his Caesar Salad and spaghetti marinara without asking for anything. And a voluble Mr. West whom everyone knew, lingered for an eon over a bottle of red, and promised to be back "soon, maybe Sunday." He was treated to a special panna cotta on the house and was introduced to the Italian guest chef who had made it.
You don't have to be a regular to get freebies, though. One four-top was occupied by a double date of two smart-dressed men who leaned heavily back in their chairs and kept smoothing down the fronts of their suits with the flat of their palms, and two blondes in frilly blouses who did most of the talking. The white mink hanging in the coat room very likely belonged to one of them. They weren't the politest of guests, referring to the thickly accented, kindly veteran waiter as "the Italian guy," and responding to the claim on the menu boast that Pietro has been named the 2005 Chef of the Year by Chefs de Cuisine Association of America with "whatever that means." But they got a round of after-dinner drinks gratis nonetheless.—Brooks of Sheffield