Mona Lisa, A Masterpiece in Little Italy

Mona Lisa store front in Little Italy.

Are you looking for a great Italian sandwich? Interested in Amari or some good Italian wine? Pizza dough, house-made sauce, and pasta in all shapes and sizes, Mona Lisa Deli on India Street at Hawthorn in Little Italy has got it all. I have been a faithful customer for 25-plus years, and I am still trying to figure out what they don’t have.

Start by grabbing a number for the deli counter then start shopping.

The Deli alone is worth the visit, but I defy you to leave with just a sandwich. The first thing you need to do upon entering Mona Lisa is to grab a number. The artists making your sandwiches are fast and efficient, and things move at an accelerated pace. Know what you want and listen hard for your number; my number was ninety-nine.

“Ninety-nine, ninety-nine,” the produttore di panini called out with bravado. “Here,” I reply and put my ticket in the cup. “I will take a Spicy Special, no mustard or mayo; everything else is fine, then I have a few other items as well.” 

The Spicy Special contains spicy soppressata, pepperoni, and capicollo. If you are a Sopranos fan, capicollo is also known as gabagool. All sandwiches come with lettuce, tomato, onion, Italian dressing, mustard, mayo, salt, and pepper. I could live with the mayo, but yellow mustard has no place on a good Italian sandwich, and I love mustard, but not on a sub.

While they are making my sandwich, I find an Amaro I have been looking for by the name of Averna.  I pick up a nice bottle of unfiltered olive oil, a few balls of pizza dough, a big wedge of both Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses. I grab a few balls of low-moisture mozzarella and a small bag of fresh basil. The house-made pizza sauce is in the glass front coolers with the drinks. My sandwich is now ready. 

There is no shortage of Amari and I am obsessed with these Italian liquors.

I tell the man behind the counter I will need a half pound each of dry salami, prosciutto, mortadella, and spicy soppressata. I would also like a medium-sized container of their freshly sliced pepperoni. When he returns I order two pounds of spicy Italian sausage and some marinated artichoke hearts, and I tell him, “That should do it for me.” While he finishes my order, I grab a half dozen small rolls made into sandwiches with mortadella salami and mozzarella. These are pre-wrapped and stacked high like a pyramid on the top of the deli counter. If my son Charlie were in town, I would have grabbed an even dozen.

Mini Subs, mortadella, salami and mozzarella, first come, first served – when they are gone they are gone.

I pick up my now stuffed basket and weave through the narrow aisles to the back of the line for checkout. Standing in line is when things get out of hand. Forced to wait in an aisle with shelves stocked with goodies is too much for me to handle. I see flavored Italian salt – I grab that – then a jar of sweet Italian peppers and a tin of anchovies packed in oil for my Caesar salads. I have to stop, eyes forward, and finally, I make it to the checkout. I have never left there for under a C-note, this visit is no exception.  

The temptations are endless, shelves and shelves of goodies.

On most occasions, I will sit at one of the tables out front and at least enjoy half of my sandwich. I love the hustle and bustle of India Street and all the color of Little Italy. I wrap the remaining half of my sandwich then cross the street and hit Assenti’s for some fresh pasta. This time it’s pasta sheets for lasagna, some bucatini, and spaghetti. Then the frozen section for a few of their pasta sauces and ravioli. One last thing, a few slices of guanciale for my carbonara later that night.

Lasagna with fresh pasta sheets from Assenti’s is simply a whole other level.

I am not going to lie; my house is a happy place for at least a week after a trip to this wonderful piece of history in the heart of Little Italy. There is a lasagna and pizzas in the wood-burning oven on the calendar and a few nights of pasta; carbonara one night, then cacio e pepe the next; two of my favorite Roman pastas.

Mona Lisa has everything you need for pizza night.

My smile starts when I make my shopping list before leaving home and lasts well into the week. Mona Lisa is one of my happy places, and it should be one of yours. Buon appetitio!

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Clyde Van Arsdall