Brooklyn is roughly 1,100 miles from Kansas City, but there's a shortcut: Giuliano Monetti Jr.'s restaurant, in Lee's Summit. His year-old Monetti's Taste of Italy feels like a tribute to the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he grew up. He might have called the place Monetti's Taste of Brooklyn.
Monetti has an accent thicker than a slab of the lasagna here (his mother's recipe, like many of the dishes served in this storefront dining room). When he isn't cooking in the kitchen, he's roaming the dining room. He chats with his patrons and sometimes spontaneously bursts into song. (His tenor is surprisingly melodic.)
His wife, Barbara, sings, too. Last Wednesday, the pair hired a local quintet called the Five Goombas to entertain customers. Only three of them showed up ("The other two don't do every performance during the week," Monetti explained), but they brought along a karaoke machine so that when they took a break from belting out Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Barbara could do a Patsy Cline number.
"She's half Italian, half German," Monetti told a diner who asked him whether Cline was Italian, "Barbara, that is — not Patsy."
Monetti wasn't cooking that night, and his hands and arms were splattered with paint and caked with drywall dust. He has been doing construction work every day next door, as he did while preparing for the opening of Taste of Italy. "This place was an Indian restaurant before we took it over," he says. "There wasn't anything here. I built almost everything." If everything goes according to plan, he'll open a lounge and banquet hall in the neighboring space December 1.
"It's gonna be beautiful," he says of the addition, which will double the size of the existing restaurant. "We'll start serving a Sunday brunch unlike anything that's out here: a carving station, Italian and American dishes, $3 bottomless mimosas. Wait until you see it."
Monetti opened his first restaurant, a Warrensburg pizzeria, back in 2004. (He built the stone facing for this newer restaurant's wood-fired pizza oven himself.) But the former United Airways mechanic wanted a bigger canvas for his culinary talents — he makes most of the dishes here, including a savory, heavily herbed vinaigrette dressing, from scratch. He decided that Lee's Summit was the place.
I can't imagine a community less like Brooklyn than Lee's Summit, but Monetti sees the similarities. "Lots of families, lots of churches, good neighborhoods, nice people," he tells me. "They needed a family-operated restaurant that serves good food."
And lots of it. I don't generally like to take leftovers home, but I never left Monetti's without a Styrofoam box or two tucked under my arm. They say that overly generous restaurant portions are a Midwestern tradition, but Monetti insists that it's another thing we have in common with Brooklyn. "No one's gonna leave my place hungry," he says.
At Monetti's, no one even gets to the dinner course hungry. His appetizers are oversized — a bowl of crispy, slightly salty calamari fritti could have fed all five of the Goombas had they shown up. And though the puffy, house-made focaccia is satisfying, Monetti also offers his yeasty garlic knots (baked pizza-dough balls dripping with garlic butter and herbs) that are too tempting to pass up. They're delicious, but a lot of starch. I was ready to pass out before the spaghetti and meatballs arrived.
Another night, I stayed disciplined (just one knot) and waited for the newest pasta on the menu here: a bowl of fettuccine tucked under a thick blanket of cream sauce blended with rich fontina cheese. Bits of tomato and asparagus peeked from the pasta, which hid cardboard-thin slices of grilled chicken sliced off the stringiest fowl in the barnyard.
The four-layer lasagna made up for that misfire, though. Despite his Sicilian heritage, Monetti brews a sugo that steers clear of the sugary marinara beloved by Old World aunts (including my own). The sauce is robust and distinctly savory. And I give Monetti points for using real clams — steamed littlenecks on the half shell — in his spaghetti and clam sauce.
If you don't count the bocce-ball-sized meatballs, there's not much in the way of beef on this menu — no steaks, no beef tips in marsala wine sauce. He does offer three fine veal dishes, with the caveat that Midwestern veal isn't as tender as the kind he used to get in Brooklyn. Maybe so, but his veal piccata, swathed in a silky lemon-caper sauce, is as fine a dish as you'll find in this part of the metro. Veal gives some diners pause nowadays, but Monetti shrugs. "My customers want it, so we serve it," he says. For the PETA crowd, there's always the eggplant parmesan.
Besides, Monetti isn't immune to progressivism. He offers gluten-free pasta upon request, and there are six meatless pasta dishes here — a good proportion of this relatively small menu.
The dessert list offers just a few dishes, of which my favorite is a very light but creamy and potently rum-flavored tiramisu. (Monetti is tinkering with a special version: "I made a pumpkin-spice tiramisu. It's incredible. You'll have to call me to find out if we're serving it.") Rum cake and a chocolate mousse are choices, too, but I'll take the spumoni. Many local restaurants have given up on that dessert, once a staple on every Italian-American dolce menu, but Monetti is stubbornly old-school. This isn't suburbia, after all — it's Brooklyn.