There’s a reason Vinoteca Di Monica turns up on lists of date-night restaurants in Boston’s North End. It’s a charming spot off busy Hanover Street, lively without splashing over into noisy, the type of place that can accommodate the after-work crowd at the bar as well as diners seeking a more white-tablecloth experience. If you stumbled onto it as a visitor to town, you’d sigh happily, knowing you’d avoided all the tourist traps and somehow found the real deal. Bob and I went to celebrate our anniversary and knew ahead of time to just settle in and relax. There’s no rushing through a meal at Vinoteca Di Monica. Chef Jorge Mendoza-Iturralde doesn’t allow it, we’d been told.
Vinoteca is a cozy hideaway with a combination of tables placed closely together and banquettes lined up against exposed brick walls. Throughout the restaurant hang drawings of all types of legends: Tom Brady has sports nicely covered, there’s Albert Einstein representing science, rock and roller Jim Morrison is portrayed in his famous shirtless pose, and more.
There’s also what the North End is famous for — homemade pasta, fresh seafood, Italian classics galore, wine, a full bar, and a splash of accordion music. We made reservations for a Friday night, and when we arrived were led right away to our table. The summer weather was warm so the windows were thrown wide open to the street, allowing us to hear the sounds and excitement of the St. Anthony’s Feast celebration, one of the North End’s eleven summer festivals.
It was a lemonade kind of night for me, and it arrived on ice, nicely tart, not too sweet. Bob went for a nice, frosty Peroni, Italy’s most popular beer. For those looking for something more sophisticated, there’s an extensive wine list and a host of interesting-sounding cocktails. As we sipped our drinks, our server launched into a long list of specials that she amazingly had memorized cold.
While we pondered, she brought over a basket of bread and a spread in a small white ramekin. The bread was rustic and chewy, but nothing special. However, the pureed white bean garlic aioli spread was a perfect smooth blend of oil and garlic that infused the beans with a not-overpowering flavor.
For an appetizer the lightly battered fried calamari was served piping hot with a spicy aioli and lemon. The calamari was tender, not tough as can happen when the rings of cephalopod are left to fry even a tick too long. Some other offerings on the Antipasi menu: egg-battered long-stem artichokes with goat cheese and ricotta dressing; oven baked crepes with fontina cheese and sautéed smoked mushrooms; and raw Black Angus beef tenderloin with horseradish aioli, capers, and shaved Grana Padano cheese.
For an entree, I chose the linguine with seafood in a garlic white wine sauce. Like all of Vinoteca’s pastas, the linguine is homemade on the premises. The dish offered a large sea scallop, a couple medium-sized shrimp, mussels and clams in their shells, and calamari. The sauce did a nice job clinging to the pasta, boiled to chewy al dente perfection, but it wasn’t heavy or weighed down with a lot of flour or cornstarch. It was a nice, light dish that would have paired beautifully with one of the many Savignon Blancs on the menu.
Bob’s chicken-filled tortellini with sage cream sauce arrived, the tortellini sizeable and stuffed to the gills. For those of you who are starving after a long day, just know that he was wishing the portion size was doubled. Would have been just fine for me, so there you go. I was a considerate dinner companion and didn’t try to steal a tortellini away in the name of work-related research. The sage reportedly did not overpower the delicacy of the cream sauce, and the chicken gave some welcome heft to the dish.
Some other entrees on the menu: free-form lasagna layered with braised chicken ragout; pan roasted rib-eye pork chop with pear agro-dolce sauce, mashed sweet potato, and broccoli rabe; and baked haddock stuffed with shrimp and scallops, breadcrumbs, garlic and herbs in a white wine sauce. There are also about a half dozen salad offerings and several side dishes as well.
Vinoteca di Monica is the type of place where service matters and neatness counts, yet it never feels pretentious, and the staff is allowed to smile, relax, and converse a little. The goal here is good Italian food served in a setting a couple notches above merely casual, yet there’s a convivial and unstuffy feel to this place that takes pride in being family run and owned.
It was nice to enjoy our anniversary in the North End, two people out and about downtown, not on business, just there for pleasure in a place that draws tourists from all over the world. After dinner we strolled around for a bit, once more avoiding the main drag in favor of the side streets that, maze-like, wind through the centuries-old neighborhood. On one street, almost narrow as an alley, long tables and folding chairs had been set right out on the sidewalk in front of restaurants. Lights strung up above the tables lent a cheerful atmosphere, and the moon was on hand in case spontaneous romance broke out. It was summer in the North End and people were enjoying everything from slices of pizza to bowls of pasta right out on the street. Within hearing, St. Anthony reveled in all the attention on his feast day. In plain sight, an anniversary couple strolled along and into another year of wedded bliss.