Located in the heart of downtown San Diego’s Little Italy, modern Modello stands apart from the other restaurants in the neighborhood. I headed here with a group of friends on a Friday night, and it did not disappoint.
The food: Monello’s claim to fame is their cheese wheel, which involves tossing hot pasta — sauce and all — in the middle of a carved wheel. This dish changes weekly, but our night it was spaghetti in a lobster bisque sauce, topped with prawns. It was good, but definitely very indulgent and filling because of all the parmesan, so I would only recommend getting it if you know you can handle the richness. I chose the Spaghetti Neri, which also came with the lobster bisque sauce but had sauteed octopus. I loved it; the octopus was cooked to just the right tenderness and was the perfect balance to the lobster.
There were other pretty inventive dishes on the menu, like gnocchi with brown butter and beef bone marrow or ravioli filled with ricotta and shrimp, but there were also classics like ragu or carbonara. Monello also offers “fai da te” for certain items, where you can customize your dish to the type of pasta and the type of sauce you’d like. No matter what you’re getting, all the pasta is housemade and organic.
Everyone at my table got pasta, but Monello also has pizza options if you’re feeling like a different type of carb, and a range of appetizers if you’re hungry enough.
The ambiance: Monello does not resemble your typical Italian restaurant. They’ve ditched the white tablecloths for sturdy wood and marble tables and there are few decor pieces, though I was facing a picture of the Milan Cathedral for the duration of my meal. The concrete, the pipes running along the ceiling, and the full wall of windows made it feel sort of industrial, which I thought was kind of a weird vibe. I missed the homey feeling you get when you walk into an Italian restaurant, and it felt like Monello was trying too hard to be casual and chic at the same time.
The price: For the quality of the food, I thought the prices were reasonable. Pasta dishes ranged from $19-26, with the most expensive options being seafood and the cheese wheel. Drinks are a bit pricier at $11-13 for a glass of wine, but that’s to be expected in downtown. It’s definitely not a place you can go to often on a college student’s budget, but it’s a nice choice for a date, dinner with visiting family, or a special occasion.
Why you should go: I’d come back for the food, since there were other things on the menu that seemed interesting. If you’re 21 or older, I’d recommend trying the Happy Hour, which takes place from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The drinks won’t be cheaper, but their Milanese aperitivo features a rotating menu of complimentary small bites, so you can enjoy your vermouth and get a little taste of Monello along with it.
Bite-Size Reviews is a short column featuring local eateries all over San Diego.