Monday, February 11, 2013

No Surrender at Monsù

The island of Sicily has a tangled, checkered history that speaks to its Mediterranean location between the European mainland and Northern Africa. A literal crossroads of trade and travel that led to invasion and takeover, Sicily boasts Greek, Spanish and Arabic cultural influences that have left their mark on its cuisine. This mélange of culinary traditions is captured by Monsù, the kitschy BYOB owned by Peter McAndrews, a Scotch-Irishman whose heritage mirrors the Sicilian blend of nationalities unified as Italian.

The Franco-Hispanic Bourbons controlled the island for a short time in the 18th and 19th centuries, establishing aristocratic households from which emerged the monzù or monsieur, the title for a French-trained chef that inspired the name of McAndrews’ restaurant on the corner of 9th and Christian. The offerings at Monsù reflect McAndrews himself: rich in personality, vibrant, unrestrained, bold, yet original and undeniable in what they are saying. They are not unlike the audacious dishes served at Modo Mio, his Italian restaurant in Northern Liberties, and Paesano’s, his popular sandwich shop that showcases a special artistry in combining flavors.

Monsù aims to deliver the sweet, spicy, and savory aspects of Sicilian cuisine whose moniker could easily be “melting pot.” With dynamic zeal, McAndrews has recently introduced a Tuesday tasting menu exhibiting the wide-ranging ingredients that are Sicily's trademark. Marketed as Peter's Basta Così, the chef delivers an impromptu 7 course (+ dessert) adventure through the island's sea and mountains, mingling fish and meat with nuts and fruit and everything in-between on plates driven by whatever inspired McAndrews on that day's Italian Market shopping excursion. The seemingly endless flow of dishes may be enough to proclaim "That's Enough," but I refused to surrender last Tuesday on the menu's introductory night. 

In a quiet dining room where only another table sat (by happenstance local legend Jerry Blavat dined with friends), Peter enthusiastically discussed the concept like a friend and explained each course as it was delivered. As if at a dinner party, though with an air of informality that permeates the space as well as the way Sicilians eat, there was boisterous banter, raised glasses and a playful exchange of stories that were as colorful as Peter's approach to life. Each dish--both indulgent and elegantly prepared---screamed sapori and displayed an interplay of texture, spice, and sweetness along with a dash of daring. McAndrews wants to take risk here, act a bit off-the-cuff and infuse his cooking with offal or components that are certainly not mainstream. It's an excuse to cook courageously for spirited food enthusiasts who appreciate a chef's kitchen whimsy. By the end of the night, like The Geator with the Heator, I snapped my fingers, called Peter "my man," and yelled Bravo in appreciation for opening a window into Sicily's soul.

Peter's Basta Così takes place every Tuesday, from 5-9 PM. Cost is $50pp, but $40pp for friends and those who work in the industry. BYOB, cash-only. Reservations required.

The Menu:
7 Courses, changing each week and focusing on McAndrews' finds in the Italian Market that day. Bring a wine that matches the earthiness and boldness of Sicilian cuisine. Aim for the native Sicilian varietal Nero d'Avola or a decadent, full-bodied Amarone della Valpolicella from the Veneto region.

Course 1: Maccu
Seared scallop atop a pork belly meatball, with green onion mostarda

Course 2: Beccafico
Roasted sardine stuffed with golden raisin, pecorino, and orange

Course 3: Melanzana Rolatini
Crispy eggplant stuffed with walnuts, tripe, shrimp, caciocavallo cheese, and plum tomato

Savory "Intermezzo"
Lamb testicles with brown butter and green onion mostarda

Course 4: Ravioli
House-made ravioli stuffed with primosale (Italian sheep milk) cheese, adorned with walnuts, sage, 20-year aged balsamic

Course 5: Chitarra
Squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra with broccoli crema and bottarga, topped with fried basil leaf

Course 6: Dentice
Seared snapper with mint salsa verde atop creamy rosemary and pecorino chickpea polenta

Course 7: Agnello Siciliana
Breaded grilled lamp chop with sopressata, caciocavallo,and lemon anchovy butter, topped with a fried egg

Dessert: Duo of cakes
Ricotta Cheesecake infused with almond and orange zest topped with crème fraîche, and Torta di Chocolata, a chocolate Italian rum cake finished with grappa and coffee-infused crème anglaise