607 N. Lincoln St. | Wilmington
Prices: Starters $4-$16, entrées $15-$24
Recommended dishes: duck salad, mushroom ravioli, tuna tartare
Identity carries a lot of weight in a neighborhood like Little Italy. The residents and business owners of the eight-block patch of west Wilmington have upheld some of the proudest and strongest local traditions since Italian immigrants moved there in force between 1880 and 1920. The Italian families that live and work there—no matter how Americanized they’ve become over the generations—cling tightly to their cultural roots and touchstones.
Food holds it all together. Every pizza, sub and water ice shop has a history and DNA that’s uniquely Little Italy. Cherished eateries like Mrs. Robino’s, Pastabilities and nearby Attilio’s—the comfy, homey places that feel more like a great aunt’s rec room than a restaurant—inform the Little Italy experience. These red sauce and chicken parm places are the purest form of comfort food to the people who grew up around them.
Food reminds Jacques Macq of home, too. But for the Belgian-born restaurateur, dining also served as his passport to nearly everywhere else.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a gymnast first,” he says with a laugh. “Second choice was to be a chef on a cruise ship so I could see the world. So after school, that’s what I did.”
Macq spent his adult years skipping between the Cayman Islands (where he met his pastry chef wife, Kelly), Monte Carlo, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver and other places, selling wine and working the restaurants. In 2001, he took a manager’s position at the Wilmington Country Club before heeding his family’s call to go into business for themselves.
Earlier this year, the husband and wife purchased the Little Italy classic, Ristorante Mona Lisa. Tiny, intimate and Italian to the core, the Lincoln Street shop was the site of countless wedding rehearsal dinners and graduation parties. Varsity letters from all the local high schools famously graced the bar.
Recasting it as Mona Lisa Euro Bistro, the new owners still save room for chicken parm on the menu, but little else of the familiar remains. The Macqs, along with their chef, Jason Hook, assemble a culinary geography lesson, plucking dishes from France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and basically the rest of Western Europe.
Some Euro-centric flair injected into the community might not seem an Earth-shattering change, but some of the bistro’s more exotic ingredients—think frog legs, blood sausage and schnitzel—could stand out in Little Italy like Pauly D at The Louvre.
But a break from the norm feels good. And even on the few occasions when it missed the mark, Mona Lisa’s best trait was its uniqueness. In Hook’s hands, the owners’ penchant for exotic ingredients open the gates for fun and creative flourishes. It’s what made dishes like his duck salad stand out. Tender, fatty flakes of duck confit, piled high on a hulking thicket of frisée and radicchio, rounded out the leaves’ bitterness, while hot-pink raspberry vinaigrette performed dutifully as a unifying element.
Elsewhere it was Spanish blood sausage and sautéed ratatouille that anchored the otherworldly mushroom ravioli. The raviolo itself (yes, just one) seemed like an afterthought, buried under a pile of sautéed summer squashes, fresh and pronounced in flavor, carrots and bell peppers. The sturdy veggies soaked up the strong herbal notes from thick slices of mushroom, while the hunks of sausage melted a tannic layer of richness into the mix.
More outré fare? Sure. Hook presents a daily tartare preparation, and among the best was his stripped down assemblage of cubed tuna. Refreshing and piquant, the melt-apart tender fish found perfect accompaniment in a simply dressed arugula salad. I enjoyed the same swath of simplicity in his potato pancakes—nicely thick, tender and toothsome, topped with an artful gravlax rosebud, apple compote and sour cream.
But in Hook’s quest for Euro classics, a few bumps appeared. Plating, on occasion, looked sloppy, thanks especially to his frustrating adherence to the very-80s practice of garnishing the rim of each plate with chopped parsley and other bric-a-brac.
I can’t imagine roasting a Cornish game hen to order, and mine arrived dry and overdone. Accompanying Belgian frites, stacked high in their newspaper cone, were equally cauterized, unappealing and black, while far below, a handful of spring peas clung together in a gluey bacon-infused, well, slime. Offering a half-dozen varieties of mussel pots is very bistro indeed, but the limp and one-dimensional Provençale broth that pooled beneath mine was not. And a bland curry sauce laid siege to my otherwise tender “crispy” frog legs, effectively erasing their crisp in the process.
The youthful and attentive servers were still learning their way through the geography lessons this summer (oysters fresh from Nova-Somewhere? gave one waitress fits), but they managed their way through.
In many respects, Mona Lisa Euro Bistro reminds me of its downtown neighbor, Juliana’s Kitchen—Edwin and Juliana Jimenez’ homespun ode to Peruvian cuisine. When it opened in 2010, the idea of ceviche and picarones sharing turf with meatballs and panzarotti seemed radical. But the couple’s devotion to family and flavors made them a natural fit. The same applies to Tom Wechkul’s legendary Bangkok House. Wechkul arrives at festivals and cook-offs with a Thai twist to whatever Italian theme organizers have dreamt.
For the growing Macq family, acceptance into the Italian community begins at home. Besides, a little genetic diversity is good for an ecosystem, no matter how strong the traditions.
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