As promised, I gathered a group of willing and hungry souls on Friday night and headed back into the storied Monte's dining room to determine if my initial good experience had been a fluke. The conclusion is no....and maybe. After another fully enjoyable meal I'll stand by my initial assertion that Monte's makes for a surprisingly fun and satisfying overall evening, but I'm willing to add a caveat. More on that later, but first, the details.
Based on the responses in the initial thread about Monte's, there seems to be two main complaints: 1) the service is poor and 2) the food has gone down hill. Given that, I'll address each of those two points based on my group's experience. To help with context, my group consisted of 8 people between 30 and 35, including 1 vegetarian. Most live in Park Slope, some for as long as 15 years, the rest from Manhattan. Out of the group, I am the only one who could be considered a chowhound in terms of my love for and approach to food. Despite this fact, they are good people.
So, to the details.
THE SERVICE - simply put - perfection. The waiter we had Friday night was the same guy we had the last time we went, so it's quite possible this is the only waiter that cares what he's doing, but I doubt it. He made no indication that he remembered us from the first visit, so I'm going to assume this is his standard level of service. Right off the bat, upon entrance, he greeted me with "Hi, Todd, I'm Frank, how are you?" and shook my hand, then led us to the table. Immediately upon seating we were asked if we wanted drinks and hot, fresh bread and butter was delivered. Drinks were delivered promptly, we were given a comfortable amount of time to settle in and begin our beverages and then our order was taken. Frank was engaged and friendly, unrushed and very personable. He fully explained all the specials and the ingredients. He made suggestions for the vegetarian. When the vegetarian was unable to eat the cold antipast because he could taste the anchovies that I had removed, Frank immediately brought him a house salad. Food was delivered at a nice pace and Frank was always nearby and accessible. There was another large party there as well as two or three deuces and he was the only waiter (with one bus boy) and I never saw him break a sweat and I never had to wait for him if I needed something. He addressed me by name throughout the evening. We spent two and a half hours there and never felt rushed and were never wanting for anything. If all waiters were like this it would be a happier planet
THE FOOD - the first time I went I had Veal Francaise and it was divine. Fresh, tart and buttery, thin veal like velvet and a perfect breading. Highly impressive. This time I had Pork Chops Putanesca (I had wanted Calamari Fra Diavolo but they were out) and I was a bit less impressed, although not disappointed. The portion was huge -two chops each about two and a half inches thick with a very olive-y sauce. They were a bit overcooked and could have been seasoned more before being sauced, but this is not Al Di La and I wasn't expecting it to be so I cut some slack. The more disappointing dish was the appetizer of stuffed baked clams - tasteless. Not good at all. The last time we went they had been excellent. Also the hot antipast of stuffed peppers and stuffed eggplant, while very good, was a small portion and not as creative as the last time. The last time I believe the order had been four or five items and a bigger portion. Perhaps the antipast depends on the chef and the stock. In any event, the fresh mozz on the cold antipast more than made up for it. Some of the best mozz I've ever had - half way between wet and dry, a bit crumbly, salted without being salty and served at the perfect temperature. None of that rubbery nonsense you get elswehere. I don't know if they make it themselvs or if they get it from somewhere, but it was AMAZING. Oh..and that bread I mentioned up above? I could have eaten just that with some butter all night and been happy. Tasted like it just came out of the oven. Delivered hot, covered with sesame seeds, crisp and flaky on the outside and delicate on the inside. Fuggedaboudit.
Other entrees at the table included linguine bolognese, penne alfredo, baked ziti, linguine with red clam sauce. Portions were huge and everyone was happy with their dish. I heard nothing but praise and complete satisfaction from all. Nevertheless, due to my pork chop and stuffed clam experience, I will concede that it's possible some of the food is disappointing (hence my caveat).
CONCLUSION - At this point, from a STRICTLY food quality point of view, I've had one fantastic meal and one mediocre meal. Given my expectations and my reasons for going there (basic red sauce italian, fun, relaxed environment) I cannot outright dismiss the place over one entree. Particularly since the menu is so expansive. However, it gives me a little pause in terms of recommending the place as a 'destination' restaurant. In other words, if I didn't live two blocks from the restaurant, would I drive 30 or 40 minutes or even an hour for the food? The answer is maybe. I would certainly make that drive for the atmosphere and to meet friends, but I haven't experienced the "benchmark" restaurants mentioned in the other thread - the one's that people supposedly would drive for - so I can't speak directly to those for comparison. But I do know good Italian. The problem with the pork chops is a little worrisome, but I absolutely will be back, hopefully to try the calamari fra diavolo. And given that, I would encourage people to try it at least once, PARTICULARLY if you live in Park Slope or the immediate surrounding areas and particularly if you are looking for an uncomplicated, relaxed night out with a big group of friends.
With that in mind, I still maintain that Monte's is a good value and a wonderful time, particularly given the kind of service I have gotten there on both occassions. For 8 of us, with four carafes of wine, a few beers, three antipasta plates, cheesecake for everyone and four or five espressos, it was 37 dollars each split evenly or about 300 bucks. I've spent 37 dollars on meals in Brooklyn and Manhattan and been far less satisfied. I think that is important. For example, while I like the food at Red Rose equally and the price is about the same, the atmosphere sucks and the service is surly. My overall judgement at the end of the night in places like this is usually based on two factors: 1)did I enjoy being in the restuarant and 2) was the food fresh, tasty and well prepared to the point of being 'good'. In terms of those criteria, I still like Monte's.
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