Fifteen years ago, I got my first job cooking in a little Italian place called LaScala on Shrewsbury Street. I remember thinking “This it it kid. Now you made it. Now you’re cooking on Shrewsbury St.”

Back then I thought Shrewsbury St. was the end all, be all to fine Italian dining.

Arancini di Rosa at Mare e Monti Trattoria

It wasn’t until a few years later when my education and career drove me to explore places like the North End in Boston and Federal Hill in Providence, that I realized there was so much more to Italian dining than pizza, Chicken Parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs.

Though that makes up a good chunk of a menu at your Italian eateries, there’s a whole world of stews, white sauces [that don’t include heavy cream], fish, and lighter Italian fares than most people aren’t even aware exist in Italian cooking. The thing is, anytime you take a carb like bread or pasta, smother it in a red sauce (not gravy, don’t ever call it gravy) and melt cheese on it, well, the results are…[very] delicious.

As our city continues to melt and mold itself into the cultural crock pot we call Worcester, ethnic neighborhoods like Shrewsbury St. begin to fade away. Businesses spread out making way for new and different ethnic cuisines to fill the gaps. But if you’re in the mood for a true Italian pasta house reminiscent of old Italian Shrewsbury St. you’re in luck, Mare e Monti Trattoria on Wall street is the answer.

As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by a vibrant bar. Dressed in blue neon lights, shimmering glasses and liquor bottles, the bar fills the space and grabs your attention. It feels sexy and sophisticated. Frank Sinatra records play, all while the hustle and bustle of pots and pans clank in the kitchen hidden away behind the bar.

The dining room features exposed brick walls, low lighting, and modern accent pieces, giving the room a real urban city like ambience.

Our hostess sat us next to a big party. Big parties tell me two things. One: this place has something for everyone and two: coming from a big Italian family, the energy from a big group adds to the italian dining experience. Laughing, joking, drinking wine, all while sharing a plate of pasta amongst family is what dining Italian is all about.

Before the server even told us her name, she hurried off and brought us back a big basket of Italian bread, some soft butter, and oil for dipping. While most places shy away from “giving away bread” Mare e Monti Trattoria embraces the tradition, above and beyond expectation.

We then ordered drinks and a few appetizers to start off the evening. My wife and I decided on the Arancini di Rosa and the Polenta con Funghi.

Polenta con Funghi

The Arancini was exactly what I was expecting. Three oversized stuffed risotto balls accompanied by a warm marinara. A crispy, golden brown exterior provided a barrier for the liquid gold of parmesan, mozzarella, and fontina cheese baked inside.

The Polenta con Funghi on the other hand I did not enjoy at all. This was the most disappointing dish of the night. There was way too much Polenta on the plate.

The Polenta not only lacked flavor, but was also way to stiff. Polenta is meant to be creamy, not gelatinous. The mushrooms also lacked the earthiness and aroma I was hoping for. The addition of a mushroom broth mixed into the polenta to create a depth of flavor and creaminess might have helped this dish a lot.

In hopes of redemption, we returned to the menu and ordered our entrees. My wife ordered the Pappardelle alla Bolognese and I order the Gnocchi Alessia and the Frutti de Mare (dont judge me, it’s my job to sample the menu).

Without a doubt I can say that my wife’s Pappardelle pasta was the best bolognese this city has to offer! A heaping bowl of fresh pasta absolutely smothered in a delicious San Marzano tomato  meat sauce. The pasta was cooked perfectly. The sauce was bursting with flavors of fresh herbs and a trio of simmered meats and diced vegetables.

The Gnocchi Alessia was also amazing. Little pillowy puffs of homemade pasta stuffed with goat cheese and roasted red peppers were prepared so perfectly they practically melted in your mouth. The light gnocchi really balance well with the dish. If they had been anymore dense, the pasta along with the sauce would have been way to heavy. You can tell a lot of thought and caring goes into the execution of Mare e Monti’s menu.  

The third entree of the night is the one I’m on the fence about the most. The Frutti de Mare at Mare e Monti’s is truly a feast of jumbo shrimps, clams, mussels, and calamari all atop a bed of [and I can’t stress this enough] perfectly cooked pasta. With a beautiful presentation, I felt the dish was a little too spicy for my liking. The menu reads “a touch of crushed red pepper” — this is where it gets a little complicated. It might just be me being picky, but the difference (not the only difference) between a Frutti de Mare and a Seafood Fra Diavolo is the amount of crushed red pepper you use while making the sauce and the addition of the peppers (usually pepperoncini). Minus the peppers, this dish could have passed for a Seafood Fra Diavolo. If it had been presented as a Fra Diavolo, and I had been in the mood something spicy, I would have enjoyed it.

Pappardelle alla Bolognese

Remember that big party the hostess sat us next to at the beginning of our meal? It happened to be the 21st birthday celebration of a friend of my little sister. Before we could even think about ordering dessert, our waitress presented us with two pieces of birthday cake that was graciously sent over by our neighboring table. This wasn’t your typical yellow cake with whipped vanilla frosting either. This was a chocolate nutella mousse cake, baked to order, at the request of their party. At Mare e Monti’s they make all of their desserts in house, and by all I mean the server literally comes over to your table with a dessert tray with at least six or seven homemade dessert options. If you can find the room I would highly recommend ordering dessert.  

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Food

A well rounded menu and wine list makes the dining experience at Mare e Montis a great choice if you’re in the mood for classic Italian Cuisine. The Bar offers a variety of martinis and cocktails along with housemade sangrias, and authentic Italian espresso to end [or begin] your evening.

Service

Great service and a knowledgeable staff make this place feel welcoming and accommodating. Everyone from the bar tender, back waiters and bussers, servers, and even the valet were helpful and polite.

Atmosphere and Ambience

No parking, no problem. Mare & Montis offers a valet service which is key being located in a residential neighborhood. Sexy, sophisticated, and modern best describes the dinning room and overall feel you get once inside. A great place to celebrate your little sisters 21st birthday, or bring your wife on that much needed date night.

Price

A bit steep for a casual night out dining. Pasta dishes range from $16 to $19. Entrees all come in around $20. The portions are huge. Anytime you go out for pasta and don’t have leftovers to take home, they didn’t give you enough pasta. You don’t have to worry about that at Mare e Monti Trattoria.

Mare e Monti Trattoria is located at 19 Wall Street in Worcester. For reservations, call 508-767-1800.

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