[ review ]
In north-of-Rome circles, Sicily gets about as much respect as the Nationals do from the Phillies. But for centuries, the island was at the crossroads of the world.
Yeah, its ports carried the Black Death into mainland Europe — perhaps that's why the northerners are such haters? — but trading vessels also returned from the East with the exotic spices that made imperial Roman bacchanals the place to be on B.C. Saturday nights. Sicily's strategic location also made it vulnerable to conquest, and there was nary a tribe in the Middle Ages that didn't get it in. At least the Arabs sent roses, as well as blood-orange trees, pistachio shrubs and other Moorish flora that thrived in the island's subtropic heat. These ingredients, not immediately associated with Italian cooking, are what put the ill in Sicilian cuisine — and what make the menu at Peter McAndrews' new BYOB, Monsù, so thrilling.
There's cinnamon in the lasagna and apricots in the osso buco. Crushed cardamom and coriander dance around lamb loin cooked in the style of horse meat. And that grassy-sweet magenta halo surrounding an oozing block of pan-fried scamorza? Puréed prickly pear. According to McAndrews, "They grow wild all over Sicily," where they're known as fico d'India (Indian fig) or, more simply, bastardone (big bastards).
"Driving down the street, we saw prickly pears all along the side of the road," says Monsù chef Damien Messina, remembering the two-week trip he and McAndrews took to Sicily in November. The longtime pals, former classmates at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, ate their way through Catania, Siracusa, Ragusa and Messina, absorbing the idiosyncratic regional cooking for Monsù, the restaurant McAndrews says he's wanted to open for a long time.
"This space [Ninth and Christian] was always meant for a restaurant," says McAndrews, who installed a second branch of his Paesano's here a year ago. (The sandwich shop has relocated down the street.) The changeover to Monsù was swift and, as a result, looks slapped-together. Shiny tangerine curtains crooked as a huckster's smile droop from the windows. Italian tchotchkes clutter every wall and ledge, and plants meet their maker in darkened corners.
Thing is, there are countless mom-and-pops in Sicily that look like Monsù, so in the right frame of mind, shabby becomes unpretentious; slapped-together becomes eccentric. Ample focaccia and semolina baguette, displayed like edible decorations on a crumb-strewn wooden sideboard, help ease you into that frame of mind.
Baked in-house and served with ethereal orange-kissed ricotta in a moat of mushroom-infused olive oil, the bread was as worthy a beginning as any of the excellent antipasti: fig- and couscous-stuffed squid; scallops over more couscous, this time accented with almonds and dates; one saffron-scented arancia (rice ball) filled with luscious short-rib ragu and molten caciocavallo. Traditionally, peas stud the ball's interior, but Messina brings them out in a spring-green purée whose earnest sweetness is stuck in my head.
Wise waiter, you were right to warn me against a second basket of bread. But I didn't listen, and consequently, half of the falsomagro (tender rib-eye cutlets layered with caciocavallo, sweet sopressata, salty, nutty anchovy butter and a fried egg) and cavallo finto (lean, thin-sliced lamb loin punched up with spicy, lemony tomato/green olive gremolata) followed me home in a doggy bag. On another visit I controlled myself, leaving plenty of energy to devour the creamy duck leg confit lacquered with orange marmalade and hazelnuts — an Italian take on duck a l'orange, indicative of the cooking an 18th-century Monsù, or French-trained Sicilian chef, might prepare for nobility.
Although Monsù does not offer the turista tasting menu "97 percent" of diners order at McAndrews' Modo Mio, Messina can slip in any pasta as a primo between app and entrée. At half the size and half the price of an entrée, I recommend this — unless you're splurging on the powerful pork osso buco, so virtuous you'll want to reserve every taste bud for its marsala-braised-and-glazed glory.
Pasta is where you'll find that wild lasagna quilted with cinnamon, cocoa, sausage and sultanas. Dark and mysterious, it was as weak-in-the-knees delicious as the butternut/marshmallow lasagna I had at Modo Mio a year ago and still think about. Other worthy candidates include ricotta gnocchi under a storm of crushed pistachios, and lazy curls of fusilli tossed in pesto Trapanese, a rich (yet bright) toasted almond, citrus zest and tomato blend traditional to Trapani on Sicily's western tip. Gooey deposits of mozzarella in the sultry rigatoni with fatty, oil-slicked tuna reminded me of the cheese pockets my brother and I would fight over in my grandmom's baked macaroni. I won then and I won now.
You don't want to fight me for the last quivering bite of almond panna cotta, either. You will lose. Messina makes all the desserts, straightforward sweets whose strengths are purity of flavor and exacting execution. The carrot/walnut cake with a dollop of tangy crème fraîche-leavened Nutella was especially moist, and the cassata cheesecake exceptionally fluffy. Fans of the savory arancia will enjoy the sweet one, a solid ball of rice pudding coated in almond-brittle "breadcrumbs" and served over crème anglaise.
The panna cotta was the most capturing, though, that sweet nut flavor developed with housemade almond milk and almond extract anointed so sparingly I wouldn't be surprised if Messina used an eyedropper. Versions of this "cooked cream" dessert are found all over the boot, but only in Sicily might it arrive with more of that prickly pear purée — a stark, singing reminder of just where we're eating. The rest of Italy, and the rest of Philly's Italian restaurants, should probably watch their backs.
Monsù | 901 Christian St., 215-440-0495. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Appetizers, $8-$12; pasta, $12-$15; entrées, $16-$21. BYOB. Cash only.