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Sauce

Authentic, romantic Italian in every way

Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

Occupationally speaking, here's the only problem with having a really good, rather romantic meal someplace: You have to tell everybody you had it. That's great for some restaurants and bad for you - the crowds descend, and you can't get a table. For others, you couldn't get a table in the first place.

Then there are open secrets like Vinoteca di Monica, an easy-to-love Italian place in the North End. It's been there for years, but a fairly recent makeover added a bar and did something to up the intimacy factor. It's unclear what exactly. Red is the primary color, and the lighting creates a chardonnay glow. And yet a few nights ago the dining room was often only half full, which was good news for the spontaneous diner who failed to get his act together to make a reservation.

The largest party that particular evening was large and businessy. The hostess had the disappointing inclination to seat three people at an adjacent table but happily agreed to move the trio to the other, decidedly less crowded side of the restaurant, at a banquette. Away from that big group, there was room to appreciate how the light human traffic helped enrich Monica's cozy warmth and create the illusion that the dining room was all yours. Under those circumstances, it's the kind of place where you start to see a twinkle in a platonic co-worker's eye that not even the boardwalk-quality renderings of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in the distance can dull.

That the food here is as good as it is seems like a bonus. The menu doesn't go off into the extreme. But it's got a great big comfort zone, and an amiable wait staff to serve from it. A delicious flatbread pizzetta comes with figs, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and cured capocollo. And once you get past the fact that the two curled Italian sausages in the sausage-and-peppers antipasti look a lot like a giant mushroom, you can admire its nearly peerless, sweet vinegar tang.

The scallops and risotto special was special, indeed. Bolognese was paired with evocatively egg-noodley tagliatelle and had a deceptive lightness. And the charred edges of a perfectly cooked pork chop made a stunning contrast with the poached pear wedges, broccoli rabe, and sherry glaze. It was a fun combination of flavors. The gentleman who ordered it said it was a nice dish to visit, but he wouldn't want to live there. So the guy sitting across from him visited often.

Starting out at the bar, this all seemed less than possible. Monica's has a full liquor license now, bar-height tables, and the obligatory flat screen television. And this annexed dining area, while pleasing in the liquor and service departments, is nowhere as appealing as the space on the other side. The bottles on the shelves do form a terrific wall in the larger dining room. Otherwise, the bar is more "Sex and the City" than "Love in the Afternoon."

Still, the idea of a romantic Italian place - especially one in the North End (seriously, throw a rock) - sounds like a cliché. But Monica's authenticity transcends the kitchen. Every night could be Valentine's Day.

Vinoteca di Monica, 143 Richmond St. 617-227-0311. Entrées $18-35. Wines by the glass $8-20

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