WHEN VIC MONGELLI FIRST opened his downtown shop, he declared he did so because he couldn't find a decent east coast sandwich in Tucson. Roughly 10 years later, he has now opened a full restaurant on Speedway. Emblazoned across the front of the menu is the declaration: "We opened Mongelli's on Speedway because we couldn't find a good Italian restaurant with great home cooking at reasonable prices."
I appreciate a crystal-clear agenda, especially one promising good home-style Italian food. And, with such a bold claim, hope momentarily surged forward in my heart. Without hesitation, we bravely faced the inferno in search of Mongelli's.
You can't really miss it. On the north side of Speedway, an enormous sign announces "Mongelli's: a Good Food Place." Speedway harbors so many oddities that I have come to expect to find nooks and crannies, tiny restaurants tucked into what used to be a hardware store or perhaps a feed bin. In other words, with a little ingenuity, the oddest of spaces can be transformed into wonderful little eateries.
But enter Mongelli's and you feel that you've walked into a Circle K that can't quite manage to turn itself into a restaurant. The ambiance is one of fast convenience. Of course, quick convenience is pretty well established as a cultural manifesto, so perhaps some can forgive the glaring white and minimalist décor. Still, a large vacant room, basically a warehouse shape, with no sense of design or ambiance creates a fairly antiseptic feel. The beverage station parked in the corner for filling one's own cups didn't quite inspire that "homey" feeling we were hoping for.
Despite the dinner hour, we were seated in a largely empty room. We started with the appetizer list. Of the eight items offered, six of them were deep-fried. As craven as this seemed, we decided that this must indicate some kind of particular talent in the kitchen with a fry-o-later. Perhaps this was indicative of some elusive area of Italian home-style cooking we'd never encountered before. But alas, the fried mozzarella ($3.19) and roasted garlic fried mushrooms ($3.49) yielded nothing that didn't taste like it hadn't been popped frozen out of a box, heated, then served.
While we waited for our entrées we marveled at how unbearably slow the service was despite the fact that the restaurant was basically empty. Perhaps this is because all entrées come with a trip to a mournful soup or salad bar, so the server felt compelled to disappear for enormous stretches of time. But one trip to the soup or salad bar sends you right back to your seat to sit and wait.
During our visit the soup was some form of cream-based chowder that had been sitting for so long that it had congealed to the sides of the container, leaving a gruelish scant ladleful at the bottom that we all declined to touch. The salad bar sported vegetables that had been chopped so far in the distant past, they had wilted or dried out or were simply too sorry to consume.
We didn't hold out much hope for the entrées. When the rigatoni with sausage ($9.49) arrived, I realized I had eaten this very dish before on an overwrought day when my youngest son made dinner for me. A helpful child, he boiled some rigatoni to within a breath of its life, then opened a jar of Ragu, and dumped it on the pasta. With love in his heart, he browned a Safeway sausage in a skillet, plated the whole thing and brought it to me in my studio. On that day it brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. But at $9.49 in a restaurant it only made me wish I was at home in the presence of wee loved ones, small children who can manage to muster up a little originality when they plate, a sprig of basil from the garden, perhaps a pinch of Romano cheese. No such luck here. I stared at the sausage. It stared back.
The cheese ravioli ($9.49) was a straightforward plate of ravioli in the same marinara sauce. The ravioli were tender and cooked correctly, but clearly not made in-house. Our server cheerfully confirmed Mongelli's didn't make its own ravioli, but had them "imported." Which means they are most likely frozen. While this is a crime routinely committed in restaurants across town, one wonders about the bold proclamation across the menu about great home cooking.
Linguine with white clam sauce ($11.49) is one of the simplest and most satisfying pasta dishes to make. This is not a difficult item to prepare, but one must follow the basic rules for ingredients: a good olive oil, chopped clams, parsley and garlic. What we were served was impossibly sad, a watery and bland plate of pasta with a tumble of chopped clam and parsley. No garlic. No olive oil. No flavor. Apparently this was a bad day for white clam sauce at Mongelli's. If this was the working example of home cooking Mongelli's had in mind, we understood why they felt compelled to buy items prepared elsewhere.
Desserts were available, a whole display window of them, pre-sliced and plated and dressed in Saran Wrap. Our server hemmed and hawed her way through the selections, at moments leaning over to check the counter before continuing the litany. Since no one had eaten more than a mouthful of dinner, we knew better, but we agreed to try dessert. It beat gnawing napkins.
The server assured us (we found this oddly revealing) that none of the desserts were made on site. She confided this information to us, as if this was supposed to inspire relief. Apparently all the desserts are made elsewhere before they are brought to Mongelli's, whereupon they are sliced, wrapped in plastic and left to languish in the dessert case.
Our waiter delivered a tiramisu that was mostly air and a light sponge cake; a mango-raspberry cheesecake, which one dining partner pointed out bore an alarming resemblance to a child's brightly colored toothpaste; and a disturbingly fudgy chocolate cake. Perhaps someone who was still very hungry and possessed a demanding and slightly deranged sweet tooth could find some comfort here.
We ordered coffee. Which was sub par.
Mongelli's claim that it serves great home cooking at reasonable prices is self-indulgent at best. If, as they claim, they cannot find a decent Italian restaurant in town, perhaps they didn't look hard enough. It is possible to find a decent Italian meal in Tucson. Those establishments are few, but they do exist, and I recommend that you frequent them before Mongelli's. That or stay home and have the kids do the cooking. Either prospect will probably be more rewarding than what awaits you at Mongelli's.