Mona’s: A Simple Celebration Of Italy In A Former Spanish Tapas Haven

 In Feature, Food

An Italian friend got married a few years ago, and the wedding reception wasn’t particularly extravagant by her standards—but the food completely blew me away. Although the sheer amount was amazing in itself (11 courses in 12 hours!), the careful pacing and pairings are what I remember most. Antipasto and salad, pasta and steak, pastries and wedding cake, all spaced just far enough apart by dancing and conversation to keep us out of a food coma. By far my favorite course was the palate cleanser midway through: a flute of sparkling wine with a scoop of lemon gelato and tiny shavings of basil.

My first spoonful of lemon-basil gelato at Mona’s took me back to that wedding. Our little group had already been hanging out at the new American-Italian restaurant in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis for some time, engaged in lively conversation over a couple of courses and a glass of wine. I have a feeling my friend would have approved—even if she’d have raised an eyebrow at some of the pizza toppings. Muffaletta? Really?

Primarily pizza

Actually, yes, the muffaletta works. The cracker-thin Roman-style crust that’s so familiar to St. Louisans is a perfect base for a meaty helping of salami, mortadella and coppa (three varieties of Italian meats), plus giardiniera (pickled veggies like carrots and peppers). This isn’t designed to be a cheesy pizza, and with the umami-vinegar flavor blend on this pizza, one really doesn’t miss the extra ooziness.

Pizza from Mona's in St. Louis

Unlike St. Louis-style pizzas, Mona’s pies have no Provel—nor mozzarella. Instead, there’s a proprietary blend that seems to be more about the flavors than the gooey-melty toppings usually found on Americanized pizzas. The fresh tomato sauce offers just the right touch of tanginess and has us looking forward to exploring the other sauce options: a sweeter version of tomato, a white sauce, and no sauce at all.

The simple cheese pizza on the kids’ menu proved to be a big hit with the tween and teen in our group. It vanished at record speed, even after their heaping helping of garlic knots to start the meal. They were less in love with the provolone fondue that accompanied those garlicky hunks of fried dough, but the combination of smoked Gouda and sweet tomato confit added complex flavors that they’re going to appreciate as much as I do someday.

Thanks to the 700-degree electric-fired brick oven and the ultra-thin crusts, pizzas bake amazingly quickly, in just a couple of minutes. There’s a make-your-own option, but it’s worth testing out a couple of the suggested pies like The D. F. (pork belly and pineapple with caramelized onions, crema and cilantro), grilled zucchini with basil and chipotle, or marinated artichoke with sliced lemon and garlic confit.

But so much more

Mona’s replaced the Spanish tapas favorite Modesto, and even though the interior is completely transformed thanks to white and blue paint, bright yellow chairs, and checkered tablecloths, it still feels right to order sharable dishes. Among the appetizers, the pickled zucchini fries and spicy pickled shrimp stand out for their bold flavors. The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola aren’t too far from what Modesto might have offered.

Fondue from Mona's in St. Louis

There are plenty of other dishes that are completely unique and all Mona’s. A salad of fried green tomatoes is one example; another is the antipasti salad with kale as a base for coppa, salami, provolone, and olive vinaigrette. The lasagna with sausage Bolognese, béchamel, and the house cheese blend is the only dish that specifically carries Mona’s name (yes, there is an actual Mona, owner Brendan Marsden’s mother).

The gnocchi—made in-house like the other pastas—were the surprise favorite. Their impressive tenderness is balanced by pieces of pork belly and corn. A rich cream sauce with Cheddar cheese unites the different textures.

For dessert, there’s gelato (in flavors like mascarpone, vanilla or the delightful lemon-basil) as well as less familiar options like Limoncello torte, butterscotch pudding, and grilled fruit with cinnamon-custard sauce.

Unlike the tapas-style dining of its predecessor, Mona’s menu isn’t really designed to make an 11-course meal. Still, it’s definitely possible to hang out there for a good long while, soaking up the ambiance of a full-fledged American-Italian pizza joint.

Tips for a top-notch experience at Mona’s

Top dish: Gnocchi with pork belly and roasted corn in a creamy Cheddar sauce

Popular pour: Since this is a self-proclaimed pizza joint, it’s fitting to ask for a can of City Wide beer, an APA from St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing Co.

Best place to perch: Alongside the tall windows—it’s the next best thing to sidewalk dining

Insider tip: Fans of Modesto’s chocolate bread pudding are in luck—it leads Mona’s dessert menu.

5257 Shaw Avenue

Entrees $12-$17
Hours: Daily 11am-1:30am

Featured photo courtesty of Mona’s via Facebook.

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