Catering to Public Opinion

Carmello’s Refocuses on Fun With Monza

By Warren Rojas

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

In some ways, the electrical fire that shuttered Manassas standby Carmello’s & Little Portugal last fall sparked not just a physical change but also stoked the flames for a full-scale philosophical realignment.
The owners of the decades-old restaurant, Alice Pires and her son/general manager, Miguel Pires, had already cooked up plans to bring in new business by opening things up with a sidewalk patio when the roof metaphorically caved in on them. What began as a simple repair job stretched into a six-month makeover that would ultimately help the Pires’ reintroduce themselves to old acquaintances and welcome their soon-to-be new BFFs: late-night revelers.

While snaking through the crowd on a random weekday night, I bumped into a gal pal I’d not laid eyes on in quite a while. She and a gaggle of dolled-up girl friends had taken over the lone, communal table at the front of Monza’s long, L-shaped lounge, ordering drinks with abandon and shuffling rapidly diminishing plates of food from one end to the other.

“It’s our Tuesday night,” my friend informs me, volunteering that her weekly confab is motivated by the extended drink specials—happy hour runs from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily and encompasses everything from discounted domestic and import beers to cut-rate call drinks and bargain by-the-glass wines—and laid-back atmosphere.
It’s all music to Miguel’s ears.

“Carmello’s is still considered a special place for a nice dinner out, anniversaries and birthdays,” he opines of the flagship property. “Monza is more of your everyday place. I see a lot of customers that would come once or twice a year [to Carmello’s] that are now coming to Monza on a more frequent basis.”

His characterization seems astute. Whereas the renovated Carmello’s space—think: impeccably set tables sprinkled across wall-to-wall hardwood floors, all policed by nattily attired staff (black button ups accented by vibrantly colored ties, half aprons)—still packs ’em in on weekend nights, it was Monza that proves consistently busy at all hours of the day. One lunch rush was attended by a handful of boisterous, visiting barkeeps (customizing rote cocktails with on-the-fly additions), a pair of businessmen doing some light cocktailing while hashing out their next big moneymaking scheme and a quartet of friends reconnecting over burgers and such. Happy hours can be spent catching up on SportsCenter highlights (there’s high-definition flat-screen TVs mounted on three of Monza’s four walls), though I prefer listening in on priceless quips from the peanut gallery:

Dude 1: “They have PBR! But the bartender said it wasn’t pouring right.”
Dude 2: “Does it ever pour right?”

The twilight crew seems very mellow, mostly just chatting among themselves or half-singing along with the gravelly-voiced, jean short-clad gent doing his best to honor assorted soft rock/top 40 hits (Lionel Ritchie, Dave Matthews Band, Rihanna) with his electric guitar and trusty fill machine.

The personality split carries over into the kitchen, where executive chef Wilmer Marquez now presides over two distinct menus. A core carve-out for Monza: brick oven pizzas.

“We’re trying to, you know, make a clean break from the [other] restaurant,” the Monza barkeep explains of the exclusively designed, wood-fired pies. Recent rollouts include: a modified margarita, the eponymous Monza and a traditional pepperoni and cheese, though Miguel mapped out plans to build up the pizza offerings moving forward.
I like the sound of all that.

The Monza pie, though small, showed plenty of heart, layering flavorful coins of caraway seed- and fennel-flecked Italian sausage and herb-crusted grilled chicken (well seasoned and exceptionally juicy) atop tangy tomato sauce and lightly blistered mozzarella. The crust looked good (fluffy, convincingly scorched around the edges) and had a yeasty edge to it, but got a little too floppy/droopy for my taste as the meal wore on.

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

The house’s take on a traditional margarita pizza pools marinara (well accented), diced tomatoes (overkill), shredded mozzarella (ease up) and ribbons of fresh basil (whole leaves look/taste better) in the middle of a pie that appears to be half crust (bubbled-up edges creep into the center of the plate). Given the generous saucing, the excess crust turns out to be an excellent dipping instrument. But a slightly firmer crust and more evenly distributed ingredients would definitely improve this pie in particular and probably all the other pizzas in general.

Ubiquitous fried rice balls should keep fritter lovers sated, revealing mounds of melted mozzarella-laced risotto moistened by seasoned tomato ragout. The breading is bronze but faint, the zesty sauce and steaming grains leading the charge.

A workman-like chicken parmigiana sandwich smothers whole chicken breasts, the lily white cutlet peeks out at you once you bite through the airy breading, in more tangy tomato sauce and a blanket of melted mozzarella.
But ‘twas the seafood that truly hooked us.

A nightly special promising soft shell crabs baked with spinach, bacon and pine nuts left us swooning, each batter-bearing crustacean emerging intertwined with sautéed spinach soaked through with heavy cream and punctuated by smoked bacon.

The simply named Jack’s Special—named after Carmello’s devotee, Jack Lilly, the gent who originally put together the sumptuous combination of shrimp, scallops and lump crab meat as part of Carmello’s create-your-own-pasta option (“Other customers kept coming in and asking for the dish they saw Jack eating, so we decided to put it on the menu,” Miguel says of the patron-inspired progression)—might just make us regulars. The generously proportioned plate of al dente angel hair pasta arrives littered with oversized seafood, including jumbo shrimp (swollen with juices), meaty sea scallops (plumptacular) and savory, shredded crab meat (always a pleasure), all enrobed in an alluring lemon-cream sauce that’s almost equal parts acid to butteriness.

A bowlful of tender gnocchi are absolutely inundated with a luxurious cheese medley sloshing together melted gorgonzola (lent some piquancy), aged Parmesan (delivered saltiness/maturity) and milky mozzarella (served as the creamy undertow). Enjoyed the well-choreographed cheesiness, but thought the dish is still perhaps one missing ingredient away—Shaved truffle? Rapini? Sun-dried tomatoes? (Don’t mind me. Just thinking out loud, here)—from perfection.

According to Miguel, many Monza patrons have, at least so far, been gravitating toward the Carmello’s carryovers (Jack’s Special, tortellini crema rosa). But he suggests that the Monza pie is catching up quickly, adding that there are more options to come (charcuterie plates, rotating pasta/veal/chicken/fish specials).

 

Monza
9405 Battle St., Manassas; 703-434-3621; (www.eatmonza.com)

Hours: Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.
Prices: Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).

 

(September 2011)

 

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