Cafe Monti - Alexandria, Virginia

Cafe Monti
3250 Duke Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Date of Visit: Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Time: Lunch - 1:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Food Quality: 7
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4

On this particular day I was in the mood for a late lunch of salad and pizza. Having my fill of NY style a few days earlier, I was looking for something thinner and less greasy. I told the GPS to look for Italian places as I drove down Duke Street in Alexandria. Stopped at one place - menu in the window proclaimed, "NY Style Pizza," so I moved on. I was about ready to give up as the GPS indicated Cafe Monti dead ahead. Sounded too pretentious for a pizza place. I was looking for places to make a legal U-turn as I passed the place. Much to my delight, it was very clearly a hole-in-the-wall dive. My kind of place!!! I took one of the three available parking places (there were a few more in back) for my late lunch.

Upon entering I was rewarded with Great American Dive Restaurant decor, faded linoleum, chipped formica tables, vinyl tablecloths, thin patina of perma-grease on everything, and a wonderful aroma of cooking tomato sauce! And there were no less than three signs calling attention to their Zagat listing, dated 2007 and 2008, an unexpected discovery. The tall counter hardly concealed the tiny kitchen area, where two cooks were hard at work. A handwritten sign notified all visitors to place their orders at the counter before being seated at one of the eleven (clearly numbered) tables. The manager, dressed in designer jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, greeted me cheerfully as I perused the white board with 20 or so handwritten specials, primarily seafood and seafood/pasta combinations. On the yellowed wall was the permanent menu, listing margherita style and other pizzas. This was good for me, indicating authentic Napoletana Style (Neapolitan) pizza. An Austrian flag proudly displayed next to Old Glory further indicated the Northern Italian slant of the proprietor and menu. Half a dozen enormous round fresh-baked loaves lined a shelving unit, and two more of them were disemboweled in the prep area. I ordered a small margherita pizza and a green salad. Upon inquiring if they had iced tea, the manager assured me it was both fresh brewed and unsweetened, so I added it to my lunch trifecta. Total with tax - $11.78.

I took a seat, and after a short wait, the manager delivered a large salad of fresh, chopped greens (no olives or other veggies to get in the way), generously dressed with a light vinegarette. A large piece of round bread loaf had a very crispy crust and a chewy, spongy inside - sort of like soda bread without the saltiness. It was perfect for pushing the salad and soaking up the surplus olive oil. The iced tea was cold enough to cause brain freeze when using the supplied straw in the plastic cup. Soon the pizza arrived on a tin plate. At first glance it looked just like NY style cheese pizza. While I was expecting fresh tomato slices and basil leaves over mozzarella on the crust (classic margherita), it was a generous amount of tomato sauce and cheese - no basil at all. It was very hot, and I cut off small pieces to cool - protecting my upper mouth from blistering. The sauce was absolutely amazing, so it was decent pizza, if not what I expected. The crust was relatively thin, crispy, and good as well. Perhaps this alteration was an adaptation to the recent tomato-salmonella scare, but I doubted it. As I waited for the pie to cool, I noticed seven types of wine on display, and a case of bottled beer. Some quick investigation found there was a good assortment of both domestic and imported beers, and I zeroed in on an Erdinger Hefe-weizen Dunkel (dark) als Bayern (from Bavaria). $5.35 more and it was mine, providing an excellent companion for the pizza.

As I finished eating and nursed my beer and tea, I saw the cooks and bus-girl take a seat with some big platters of food. It looked and smelled wonderful, as did the fish ordered at a neighboring table. My pizza and salad made a delightful and filling meal, just perfect for my mood and inclination. I looked up their Zagat Rating, and found it to be 22 for the food, a pretty high score for the Uber-picky NoVa crowd. I think the place deserves a return trip to try the seafood and pasta, which looked great, and perhaps even to try some Austrian fare as well. It's a place you definitely go for the food and not the atmosphere.

And so I did return, for dinner!

Date of Visit: Thursday, June 12, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Even though 9 of the 11 tables were full, I still was able to snag one of the three places out front. The same folks were there as the day before, plus an attractive young lady who served and cleared the tables. The white board had been changed in several areas, and the drill looked to be the same. I studied for a bit, then stepped up to the cash register to order. Unlike lunch, the manager did not collect payment at that time, but directed me to an empty table.

What I had with descriptions...
I went with the prosciutto and melon appetizer ($8), fresh scallops and linguine for main course ($18), and pear tart ($5) for dessert. the white board menu descriptions offered no more information than this. I noted they were pouring wines by the carafe, so I asked about the choices for white - pinot grigio and chardonnay. I added half a carafe ($9) of the pinot grigio. I took a table at the back and watched the room. The wine arrived at once, and it was cold and decent - off dry and nice in the summer heat. Near me was a display refrigerator stocked with sodas and bottled water, and a bus area with tubs labeled "Dishes," "Silverware," and "Glasses." Much to my surprise, two young girls eating with their mothers bussed their table into the bins. A few minutes later their teenage brothers did the same, as did the mothers. As I enjoyed my salty prosciutto, fresh cantaloupe, olive oil, and crusty bread - offset nicely by the wine, I watched essentially all the other diners bus their tables as well. It was evident that many of them knew each other - by sight if not by name, and they were also familiar with the staff. Apparently this is a locals' place, and the locals are happy to help out by clearing their own tables. One elderly man even stooped low to fetch a napkin from under his table. Most of the adults, and all of the kids, smiled and acknowledged me as I sat alone. It created a nice atmosphere.

The main course arrived - a healthy pile of needle-thin pasta surrounded by a dozen good-sized scallops. The smallest was about the size of a half dollar. The sauce was the same as used on yesterday's pizza, made slightly runny in combination with the pasta. The linguine was slightly overcooked, soft and unable to absorb any sauce. I put a few hunks of crusty, spongy bread to good use, soaking up puddles of sauce, as I focused on the scallops. They were fresh and sweet, though a couple had started to become slightly fishy. I noted a father and daughter at a nearby table order dessert, and was surprised to see something other than the pear tart. I asked the helpful server what they had, and she informed me it was apple strudel. As it turns out they also had cheesecake, flan, and one piece of raspberry tart. We discussed the merits of strudel versus pear tart for a bit, and I ended up changing my order over to the strudel. I took my time with the main course, but still ended up with some sauce spray on my shirt - which was fortunately red!

The strudel arrived with a nice side of whipped cream. The waitress had told me that none of their desserts was overly sweet, and that was indeed the case with the strudel. I noted a pink tinge to the apple filling, and saw a couple of fruits inside that looked like raisins. I was pleasantly surprised to find they were pitted, dried cherries, lending a delightfully tart contrast to the sweet apples. The portion was generous and delicious. And though not overly sweet, it brought out a pleasant bitter characteristic in the pinot grigio, providing yet another contrast. Again we have a dessert elevating the overall food score! Satiated, I decided to join the locals and bus my own table. And I will have to come back another time to try the pear tart... Total bill was a very reasonable $42.50 with tax, and I left another $8 for tip.

Cafe Monti - Recommended if you want decent Italian with outstanding dessert in a modest setting

Highs: Decent food, great desserts, reasonable prices, large portions, very friendly staff, local restaurant feel
Lows: Ambiance not suitable for a first date or business meeting

Bon App├ętit! - W. Ego

No comments: