Thursday, November 17, 2005
By Tuscan authenticity is unavoidable in the new little cucina on Munras in Monterey. It smells wonderful as it bakes in the oak-fired oven. It’s audible in the accents. It’s visible in the pizza crust and edible in each bite. And it’s enough to inspire a steady stream of enthusiastic patrons to overlook some minor early missteps and celebrate bona fide Tuscan dishes, superb thin-crust pizzas, great pastas and friendly service at very reasonable prices.
The authenticity is certainly apparent in charming Italian transplant Daniele, who welcomes us into the simple, elegant interior with an open kitchen with a, “Buon giorno, come stai?” (There’s little hint of its past fast-food tenant Wendy’s decor.) He’s immediately proffering a free clinic in pronouncing his name, then launching into a lesson on the qualities that make Tuscan food great. Then he’s onto the wine list.
(Apply undulating accent:) “Cecchi ($21) is a great Chianti—for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s dry and lively.” Alex, Kelly Rose and I are in, partly because we get to say “Cecchi” a few more times as we toast.
Picking from the selection of antipastos, salads, pizza combinations, soups, platters and pastas is much more difficult. Alex dreams out loud of a set menu to allay the indecision. We finally decide to take on a Pizza Contadina ($11.95), a Pizza Parmigiana ($12.95) and Pasta Alla Ducale ($11.95) as a team.
Daniele’s right about the Cecchi from Castellina in Chianti. It’s dry but not parched—and as lively as the 35-person-capacity place quickly becomes. By 6:30pm on a Wednesday, the joint is stuffed like homemade Ravioli Al Carciofi ($11.95). Suddenly Daniele isn’t so chatty. Seems he’s the only server in this part of Tuscany.
The midweek crowd tells me that a big smudge on one of our wine glasses won’t faze this operation much. Meanwhile, the truly Tuscan combo of razor-thin prosciutto and melon ($6) works melt-in-the-mouth wonders on the tongue. It’s sweet, salty, and just right.
The pizza ups the ante. In fact, the rich and smooth sauce and fresh tomato is so good that it takes me a minute to realize that the Margherita ($9.95) isn’t the one we ordered. The nearest table had the same problem.
The Pizza Contadina—mozzarella, sautéed onions, bell peppers, pulled chicken and cilantro—is great despite the absence of cilantro. The crust is the story here: thin and perfectly crispy, it makes an ideal platform for everything from pesto to Yukon potatoes, goat cheese to porcini mushrooms, all ingredients that star on different pizzas.
It also makes it possible to eat five slices without feeling like a meatball. No wimpy Western pre-cut slices, either. In Tuscany, it’s cut your own with a knife.
The pasta is very good but comes short of greatness—while the sauce harmonizes sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and grilled chicken nicely, the ‘chokes are more leaf than heart and the pasta is slightly undercooked.
Then the Pizza Parmigiana is hand-hustled over by owner Massimo Sartorio, who opened La Giostra two months ago. And a magical thing called truffle oil takes place. The parmesan and mozzarella, the slimy mushrooms and prosciutto, even the arugula make for a clever and complementary combo, but the truffle oil helps it all swim together in celestial Tuscan savoryness. And while I wanted to skip sharing it—or even cutting it—sharing dishes is definitely the way to go here.
The experience gives me little cause to doubt the legitimacy of this Tuscan outpost; nevertheless, I recruit my colleague Alisha, a veteran of several Florence summers, to verify for lunch.
La Giostra gets the nod—Alisha says it’s all legit, particularly the super-fresh ingredients. In the future, though, I’d personally pass on having the very Italian Crostini Toscani ($6.95) to prove it. It’s rich, it’s earthy, it’s a deep-brown chicken-liver spread served with bread. It’s probably an acquired taste. I’m told real Italians sing opera for it.
An Insalata Dell’Architetto ($7.50), for bringing all the fun of yellow beets, celery root, fresh ginger and carrots into the equation, isn’t very exciting, but the wild berry dressing and potently flavorful organic greens make it tasty.
The Ciacini ($8.95) gives me cause to imagine it could trump the pizza: It’s described as a folded and cut pizza (differing from a calzone in that it’s unsealed). I’m imagining double the mozzarella and great sauce mingling with the toppings, all wrapped in the super thin crunch of the crust—I tab the Alla Verdure with eggplant, zucchini, onions and asparagus. Instead, it’s half a pizza, with a loose crust lid on top. No mingling, but it still went quickly (as did the salad that came with it); next time, I’ll stick with the pizza and fold it myself.
And in all authenticity, there will be a next time.
1244 Munras Ave., Monterey