Monroe's

American, Pizza
$$$$ ($15-$24)
'

Editorial Review

When Monroe's opened on Commonwealth Avenue in 1996, a thriving commercial center in Alexandria's Del Ray section was merely a dream.

Monroe's Mark Abraham, who grew up in Alexandria, and his wife, Mary, chose the former pharmacy/convenience store location for their "American trattoria" because they live in the neighborhood. A few blocks away, the Abrahams' daughter Laura and a childhood friend, Eric Reid, who once worked at Evening Star Cafe, now operate Del Merei Grille.

Monroe's has an open, almost sprawling feel, with a large mahogany bar set to one side and separated from the main dining room by a mid-height wall of glass brick. Window seats provide room in front. Wooden booths line the three walls of the dining room, with tables in the middle. Above the booths are bright murals of giant vegetables and key Italian cooking and dining ingredients.

White butcher paper tops the tables, and crayons are provided for doodling adults or creative children. There are large open bottles of wine on each table and, trattoria-style, you pour your own and pay only for what you drink. There is also a well-chosen list of mostly Italian wines, available at prices that often rival a retail store's.

Chef Jesus Rodriguez has been in charge of the kitchen for six years. His menu runs several pages and reads like that of a traditional Italian trattoria, with long lists of pizzas, pastas, appetizers and entrees. In addition, a full page of specials is offered every day.

The best way to start a meal here is with the special Monroe's bread, a disk of pizza dough cooked almost cracker-crisp and topped with olive oil, rosemary, fresh basil and Parmesan. It's almost a white pizza, without the garlic.

Salads, almost an afterthought at some restaurants, are brilliantly fresh-tasting and imaginative here, whether it be a simple mound of mixed spring greens with a plain vinaigrette or a composition of fat asparagus spears, vibrant roasted red peppers and marinated artichoke hearts over a smattering of lettuces.

Pastas get the American treatment, turning them into entree-size portions rather than their traditional starter role. But most are also available in smaller portions, and all are cooked al dente, rather than into a gummy mush. Preparations include the simple Linguine AOP (garlic, olive oil and red pepper flakes) and the more complex all'Amatriciana, though it tasted more of red peppers than of pancetta (Italian bacon).

Entrees show that Monroe's love affair with vegetables isn't limited to the decor. Orders -- of veal piccata, properly tender and tart with lemon and capers, and calf liver, meltingly savory but with a sauce that tended to overwhelm the gentle flavor -- were served with some of the best side dishes I have encountered in months. Scalloped potatoes were rich and luxurious, but the stir-fried slivers of snow peas, accented with bits of mushroom and red pepper, were so good I would have ordered them as my main dish.

Desserts include specialties from the Italian Bindi line, such as lemon sorbet in an empty lemon peel shell and a lemon-flavored tart, but the stars here are made in-house. The fine-textured panna cotta was easily a match for any version in Italy.

--Nancy Lewis (March 29, 2007)