By Sarah Zorn
After unexpectedly closing down in 2008, the century-old Monte’s on Carroll Street is finally set to reopen today, in name — and signature ricotta cheesecake — only.
And that’s the good news.
The former speakeasy and Rat Pack playground — which long claimed to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the borough — was beginning to lose luster as customers grew weary of its over-the-top décor and increasingly lackluster Italian-American food.
“We wanted to keep the neighborhood feel of the old Monte’s, but make it a lot more modern and fun,” said new co-owner, Tina Castelvetre.
That means updated interiors that resist kitsch with sage green and exposed brick walls — and the gigantic murals of Venice have been replaced with vintage Brooklyn street maps, wrought iron sconces, and the occasional pizza paddle.
“We kept what we could, like the old bar,” said Castelvetre. “We just gave it a new marble countertop. The tables got a new base. The red booths aren’t original, but we kept the look the same. Everything else needed to be gutted — it was all rotted through.”
The most striking aspect of the renovation is an entirely open kitchen, where patrons can watch pizzaiolo John Censullo shuttle thin crusted pies from a massive wood-burning pizza oven.
And while the 100-year-old recipe for Monte’s famous ricotta cheesecake remains untouched, soggy platters of veal piccata and spaghetti marinara get the boot.
“I didn’t go to one of the best cooking schools in Italy to make chicken parmagiano,” said new chef Christian Sbordi, whose resume also includes stints at The Rainbow Room/Cipriani’s and Le Caprice in Manhattan.
“There’s nothing wrong with shrimp fra diavolo, but I’m a three-star chef. I want to create three-star modern Italian food … that people can still afford.”
The new menu includes a roster of carefully selected meats and cheeses ($9 each, or $18 for five) and starters such as polenta fries ($7). Pastas will range from $14-20, and main courses will top out at $32.
Sbordi is particularly excited about his lamb meatballs with ricotta, sherry onions, cauliflower and sesame cream, grilled octopus with radicchio, chick peas, and green olives, homemade “trenette” pasta with wild boar ragu and parmagiano foam, and pan seared sesame-crusted tuna with caponata and saba, a syrup made by reducing the first grape pressings for wine.
Pretty fancy stuff for a restaurant that once drew visitors more for its exploits than its food — if it drew visitors at all given its isolated location next to the Gowanus Canal.
That once-distant locale, however, is part of a burgeoning scene.
“We respect the history of Monte’s, but it wasn’t serving the neigborhood anymore,” said Castelvetre. “Now we have a place where you can come with your family, or for a dinner date, or a few late night drinks with friends. That’s what the area needs right now.”
Monte’s [451 Carroll St. between Third Avenue and Nevins Street in Gowanus (718) 852-7800].