12941 Wisteria Dr.,
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices: Most dinner entrees $7 to $9.
Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Mondello, an Italian restaurant open just a few months, has a lot going for it. Its location, for one thing. Aside from fast-food outlets, Germantown has a shortage of restaurants, so Mondello's clientele is raring to go (business already seems brisk).
This is an unusually handsome restaurant too, with polished honey-oak walls, soft lighting, comfortable seating and good acoustics. The service has been very good, with watchful supervision by the owner, and the prices are reasonable.
But there are problems. At least at this early stage in the game, the kitchen is somewhat glitch-prone and the food uneven. Attribute it to growing pains, if you like, but the fact remains that though it's possible to eat reasonably well at Mondello, it takes careful ordering.
A safe bet among the appetizers is the pleasant fried mozzarella, finger-thick cylinders of creamy cheese inside a light batter crust. We've also had a good pasta and black bean soup, an occasional special, with firm pasta and a zippy flavor.
The mussels appetizer is generously portioned and reasonably priced, but it suffers from slightly old and gritty mussels and an over-salted oil-parsley-garlic broth. Bruschetta, toasted bread rounds topped with olive oil, garlic and minced vegetables, was a letdown. It would have been better made with authentic, hearth-baked Italian bread -- the loaves used at Mondello are soft-crusted, so the bruschetta is built on a shaky foundation.
The small salad that accompanies the entrees is decent enough but it's compromised by a bland, mayonnaise-like dressing.
In choosing a pasta, head for the tomato sauce -- there seems to be a single all-purpose marinara sauce here that's quite good, nicely chunky and fruity. The lasagna casserole is a passable version, a little mushy and somewhat over-salted, but tasty nonetheless. Fettuccine with pesto sauce, a special one night, was pleasant despite slightly over-soft pasta and what tasted like dried rather than fresh basil.
For entrees, the veal has been very good -- pale, tender, succulent, reasonably priced. The veal with mushrooms has a good, simple sauce of white wine, lemon, butter and parsley. The eggplant parmigiana is fine too, with reasonably firm eggplant, fried nicely in fresh oil, served in a casserole with a bit of melted mozzarella and some of that nice, serviceable marinara sauce.
Another decent choice is the sausage with green pepper, the meat nicely fragrant with fennel, the sauce more of that good old marinara, the fetuccine somewhat overcooked.
The cream-based sauces don't seem as successful as the marinara -- we had a shrimp with tarragon special served with a thick white sauce, bland except for an excess of salt, and accompanied by a very sticky mound of angel hair pasta. We also had a red snapper special in which the fish, a bit past its prime, was served with what tasted like surimi, the man-made seafood product.
For dessert, the cannoli is outstanding, remarkably light and subtle, not too sweet and with a very crisp, flaky wrapper.
This is a restaurant with a lot of potential -- location, looks, service, prices -- along with some rough spots. We're rooting for Mondello to iron them out.