MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, especially the blocks between Bleecker and West Third, is one of the city’s greatest restaurant rows. Around 3 p.m. or so, it begins to crowd with eager diners who patronize dozens of dining establishments and honky tonk bars, and as you stand in their midst you’ll see falafels, smash burgers, banh mi, slices of pizza, kati rolls, doner kebab sandwiches, and cones of double-cooked Belgian fries sail by. Even as far back as 1971 — the year Mamoun’s Falafel was founded — Malcolm Forbes referred to the street as the “Mardi-Gras bacchanalian swarm of MacDougal Street.”
But in the midst of these blocks stands Monte’s Trattoria (97 MacDougal Street), a soot-covered townhouse obscured by neon signage (much like the more recent Carbone) and the busy balconied cafes around it. The ancient establishment dates to 1918, making it the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood, nine years older than Caffe Reggio and almost 20 years older than Minetta Tavern. Monte’s was founded by a pair of Italian immigrant families, and the outward appearance hasn’t changed much since. It was purchased in 1983 by the Mosconi family, who had immigrated from Emilia-Romagna in the ‘60s, and had established the slightly more modern Villa Mosconi on the next block of MacDougal in 1976.
The chef, owner, and scion of the family is Pietro Mosconi, and his menu is a mash-up of red-sauced and seafood-heavy Southern Italian fare, with the fresh pastas and meat dishes of the North. The room is elegant in a 1960s sort of way, with a pocket bar in a front corner, tables covered in white linen, and waiters in black vests who do everything with a flourish. Framed photos of celebrities checkerboard the walls — including Joe Torre, a much younger Rudolph Giuliani, the Pope, and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, never letting you forget that, at Monte’s, you’re in the jazzy Greenwich Village of the past.
You can’t inhale a better plate of baked clams ($18), tender littlenecks left on their half shells and heaped with bread crumbs and grated cheese. I don’t need to tell you that the olive oil, garlic, and clam juice that pool in the bottom of the plate are the best part. Baby artichokes are treated the same way, a boon to vegetarians and those who dislike the slight bitterness of the bivalves. The only app that bombed was a plate of squash blossoms coated with what seemed like a beer batter filled with mozzarella rather than ricotta, resulting in a heaviness that overwhelmed the delicate flowers.
Monte’s is one of those restaurants where, opposite of the usual pattern, the main courses are better than the starters. If you’ve seen the old Jackie Gleason TV show — so popular, that the bus depot in Sunset Park has been named after him — his upstairs Italian neighbor in Bensonhurst was Mrs. Manicotti. A waggish screenwriter had named her after a favorite pasta of Italian-American families of Brooklyn. The dish consisted of fresh noodle sheets rolled around a filling of ricotta cheese and smothered in marinara, often eaten for Sunday supper, but less often seen today.
Well, the version at Montes ($21) is flat rather than tubular. It turns out, that’s the way it’s made in Emilia-Romagna, where the pasta is known as cannelloni. At Monte’s, a server grates cheese lavishly over the dish once it’s served, one of many tableside flourishes that characterize service here. When the marvelous veal marsala arrives — tender medallions delivered in a light sauce of Sicilian marsala wine, which delivers a slightly sweet and piquant punch – the waiter ceremoniously parses out the portions, using a pair of large spoons wielded like outsize chopsticks, clicking as he works.
The best entree we tried was the beef short ribs ($33), a heap of meaty and fatty bones in a brown gravy that after a bite or two you’ll realize is enriched with tomato sauce. Like bloated and exhausted swimmers, gnocchi bob alongside — the gnarled potato dumplings that are something of a northern Italian signature at the restaurant. We finished up our bottle of Prosecco ($38), then headed for the desserts.
The desserts at Monte’s are strictly Neapolitan, such as one might find in any of Williamsburg’s red-sauced old timers like Bamonte’s and Frost. The cannoli shells are filled right before serving, retaining their crispness even as an on-the-light-side ricotta filling is piped in. The tartufo are the usual multicolored ice cream orbs thickly coated in chocolate, but best of the desserts we tried was zabaglione ($9). Usually, it’s one of the worst — sticky and overlaced with cognac or rum. Here, ripe strawberries take up half the volume in a featherweight and foamy pudding that allows them to dominate the flavor, like a taste of the coming spring.
Two hours at Monte’s is a time trip, man, not only into Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village, but into the length of Italy as it was in the last mid-century, an experience on the fusty side but also a revivifying one as you stroll out onto MacDougal Street with its kaleidoscope of sights and smells.