Italian You Can't Refuse

Mona Lisa's cuisine wows in their new, hard-to-find Tanque Verde home

Sorting out the name of Mona Lisa Corleone Sicilian Restaurant is the first challenge. Finding the place is the second. But it's not difficult at all to appreciate the superb cuisine, which is as different from the usual spaghetti-and-meatballs "American Italian" fare as Sonoran Mexican food is from Tex-Mex.

About that name: The owners of the Mona Lisa bakery and restaurant at Broadway Boulevard and Kolb Road shut down their place last year and, last April, expanded into a grander space on Tanque Verde Road near Grant Road, formerly the restaurant known as Corleone's. The two identities have merged in the name, although the atmosphere and menu owe far more to the Sicilian mobster Corleone personality than to the Florentine Mona Lisa.

The place even looks like a Mafia front. The multilevel dining room is lined with red leather booths; the walls are maroon where they aren't covered with mirrors; the primary carpet color is red; and there's a spacious stage (with disco ball overhead) where a Sinatra impersonator holds forth on the weekend. All it lacks for that authentic 1950s Italian-American ambience is the smell of stale cigarette smoke. I remarked to one of my dining companions, my cello-playing friend Harry, that we should have brought violin cases, like old-time gangsters. And yet the décor never crosses the line into kitsch (the lack of Godfather posters certainly helps). The place looks classy, actually, which reflects the quality of the cuisine. And the restaurant has a small list of Sicilian wines by the bottle and glass, well worth taking a chance on.

But before you can order, you have to find Mona Lisa. Head north on Tanque Verde just slightly beyond the Maverick, then turn into the driveway/parking lot between the two office/retail buildings next door. Drive back--way back--and you'll finally reach the large, freestanding restaurant. The entrance is fairly small, in a back corner. By the time you reach the door, you feel like you ought to know a secret password to get in. Fortunately, the Puccia family (and I mean "family" in the conventional sense) will usher you through with great cheer.

The pleasant wait staff, dressed in Sicilian garb, is efficient and knowledgeable about the menu, going so far as to break down, in grams, the proportions of protein to pasta to vegetables in the entrées

The menu falls into logical categories, including Sicilian specialties (two eggplant dishes and a sausage platter), grilled items (salmon, lamb chops, rib eye), veal, seafood, chicken and pizza, the latter mainly in combos you'd actually find in Italy rather than at Pizza Hut. Pasta is properly treated as a side dish, although, if you insist, you can choose from a few main-course pasta-and-marinara dishes tucked away on the back page. Several entrées, especially the grilled items, are served with gnocchi (little potato dumplings) rather than the more common stringy pasta (linguine, spaghetti and the like).

Each appetizer is designed to serve two, and in many cases could be shared by three. The antipasto Siciliano ($9) is a platter of sliced meats and provolone, thick pads of mozzarella and strips of roasted peppers, all laced with balsamic vinegar and served with a little bowl of crunchy marinated vegetables. We also shared the calamari fritti ($9), the calamari wearing a crisp, light, not-at-all greasy breading, poised for a dip in the accompanying marinara and a quick shower of lemon juice. The marinara wasn't as flavorful with herbs as it might have been, but it was light and fresh.

Instead of taking the salad that arrives with every entrée, Harry and I opted to increase our entrée prices $2 so we could try the soups. One was the evening's special, a squash chowder that was not loaded down with cream; Harry declared it to be tasty although a bit too peppery for his liking. (An odd omission is that there's no offer of freshly ground pepper, and no fresh Parmesan instead of the dried stuff that comes out of a shaker.) My Italian wedding soup--miniature meatballs, diced chicken and spinach in an exceptionally light chicken broth--was just right, with the spinach still in the form of bright green leaves, rather than overcooked brownish strands.

Sanda deemed her Caesar salad ($5 to accompany the entrée, $7 otherwise) "fabulous," thanks to the subtle but detectable use of anchovy and the variety of lettuces. Yvonne's house salad was unpretentious and therefore not likely to go wrong, and she appreciated that the Italian dressing emphasized vinegar over oil.

My veal Corleone ($18) was a generous plate of thin veal scallopini in a savory crimini mushroom demi-glace (a bit earthier than what you'd get with conventional button mushrooms) prepared with a hint of cream and just an insinuation of brandy. The side vegetables--which accompanied all the entrées--included crisp slices of carrot and zucchini, tender slices of onion and roasted garlic.

Yvonne ordered the lamb chops ($22). Lamb traditionally comes with some form of mint sauce; the Sicilian twist here was a remarkably brisk and clean-tasting garlic-mint pesto, which also graced the tender gnocchi. As a bonus, Yvonne got five little chops instead of the advertised four.

Sanda chose the linguine and clams ($14), except she requested another pasta and was happily accommodated. The half-pound of steamed clams, served on the shell, was dressed in the usual butter and white-wine sauce, nothing individual but certainly well done. Harry's scampi special ($10) seemed similar to the menu description of the standard Corleone shrimp scampi ($14), served with the same sort of sauce that came with the clams but now with a touch of lemon and vermouth, over angel hair pasta; surprisingly, it lacked the usual capers. Is this a peculiarity of Sicilian preparation, or merely chef Gianluca Interrante's preference?

Desserts come in a nouvelle presentation, on large plates with a drizzle of chocolate or some other sauce. The rich chocolate cannoli ($4) wrapped creamy ricotta in a dauntingly hard but tasty chocolate-coated shell. Michael's cheesecake ($5) was a bit dryer than the New York variety, but airy and flavorful. The coppa caffe ($6), a gelato, delivered a subtle coffee and cocoa flavor. Sanda's one disappointment was Mariella's tiramisú ($6), which she thought too doughy and too heavy on the cinnamon.

In the end, the odd hybrid name Mona Lisa Corleone makes sense: You come away with an enigmatic smile after being offered fine cuisine you cannot refuse.

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