As I’ve found myself saying many times over the years, Italian restaurants are so numerous — and, on some levels, so similar — that it’s tough for one to stand out from the crowd.
Montesano’s does it by injecting its menu with a healthy dose of creativity. This is a very broad, ambitious menu, with all of the old-familiars, but among them are such dishes as a starter called Lasagna Explosion and an entree of Meatloaf Parmesan, to name just two. It’s clear somebody is trying hard to think outside the box.
And succeeding, for the most part. Garlic knots are commonplace in Las Vegas, but Montesano’s puts a twist on them by making them tiny, frying them, dusting them with garlic and grated cheese and including them in the bread basket that also includes old-school Italian and butter. The knots didn’t sound (or look) like much, but we found them so addictive that, when we emptied our basket while waiting for our appetizer and a server offered a refill, we asked her to make it just the knots. She complied, with a generous portion.
At the same time, Montesano’s makes standard-size garlic knots, which they split and fill with pepperoni, ham and mozzarella, in sort of an Italian version of the slider. We didn’t get to try those, but thought they were a great idea.
As for the appetizer, we definitely were drawn in by the charms of the Lasagna Explosion ($7.99), which the menu described as “our homemade lasagna hand-breaded and fried to a golden brown.” And indeed it was, sans the sauce: noodles, cheese, even chunks of meat here and there, inside a nicely crisp, nongreasy shell a little bigger than a boiled egg. As for the sauce, that’s served on the side and was meat in a tomato base that carried great depth of flavor thanks to careful execution and long simmering.
Which may be what made an entree of baked pasta with meatballs ($15.99) such a disappointment. First of all, this one was served lukewarm, in marked contrast to our starter and our other entree, both served sufficiently hot. The meatballs themselves were quite a disappointment. We’re not fond of particularly firm meatballs and definitely don’t favor those that are so firm they’re rubbery, but these were soft in the extreme — almost mushy, so soft that they weren’t meatballs at all but meat hemispheres because they were too soft to hold their shape. And while we liked the idea that the nicely al dente ziti would be tossed with Romano and ricotta, that actually had the effect of rendering that laudable sauce dull and overly salty.
Much better was the Veal Montesano ($19.99). The meat was gently sauteed and still moist, its inherent neutrality made more interesting by the artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, garlic and chunks of potato (which seemed a little odd in that the dish was served over pasta, but they didn’t overdo it with the potatoes) and the light wine-and-butter sauce that cloaked it all.
We also liked that Montesano’s pasta choices include rigatoni, which we like with certain dishes and which few restaurants seem to stock, along with ziti, spaghetti, linguine, fettucine, cappellini and bowties, also known as farfalle.
Service throughout was pretty hit-and-miss, servers seeming like they sincerely wanted to be prompt and efficient but spread too thin to do so. The decor was relatively attractive, with interesting prints on the walls but tables that were kind of worn along the edges.
As we’d waited to be seated, we had fairly drooled while gazing into the pastry case, which contained just about any Italian delight we could think of and a few we couldn’t. Montesano’s gets serious props for that, as well as for creativity.
Just don’t expect much from an old standard like pasta and meatballs.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.