I don’t like Griffintown. If the area around St-Zotique is Little Italy, then Griffintown is, like, Little Toronto: an overdeveloped chunk of highrises. Fortunately, a little space on the ground floor of one of those Montreal highrises is home to restaurant Mano Cornuto, and if I have to get lunch in Griffintown, there’s nowhere else I’d rather go.
On the day I ate there, the place was absolutely jammed. I get the impression that Mano Cornuto gets busy often — it’s small, it’s convenient, it attracts a lunch crowd. But be warned: they don’t take reservations. After a few minutes of waiting by the entrance, I managed to grab a seat at the bar.
Right off the bat, I want to address the branding — it’s excellent. There is this whimsical but iconic quality that defines much of Italian branding and Mano Cornuto’s embodies the feeling and aesthetic without really copying anything in particular. It’s classical but original, which essentially sums up the restaurant’s charm as a whole. It’s got all the classic caffè tropes but done in a style that is uniquely its own.
Located on the slightly hidden corner of Ottawa and Ann streets in Montreal, Mano Cornuto opened around the end of the summer, which means the four restaurant owners are all very present. One of them, Tyler Maher, was tending bar the day I went. I don’t know if this is always the case at Mano Cornuto, but Thursday at 1 p.m. is apparently cocktail rush hour. Maher was dutifully up to the task, making pleasant conversation with clients, taking orders and managing the flips all while making about a dozen cocktails, one of which was for me.
There’s a good selection of affordable natural wines by the bottle and by the glass, a small but curated selection of beers, too, but looking around the room, everyone was drinking cocktails. The cocktails lean heavily on the aperitivo side of things: think a few different spritzes, a negroni, an Americano and, one of my personal favourites, a Garibaldi: a simple combination of orange juice and Campari, made famous at world-renowned New York bar Dante. “Fluffy” orange juice is really what makes the Garibaldi, and at Mano Cornuto, they nail it: the orange juice gets a quick pulse in a blender, aerates it — ie. fluffing it up — so that the drink is bitter, sweet, acidic and creamy all at once. It’s delicious.
The menu is simple and straightforward, with a section of pastries meant to accompany the excellent coffee, some homemade focaccia served warmed and topped with ricotta and a choice of jams or, should you wish, truffled honey. For the more substantial dishes, they have a choice of a few paninis, which are excellent. I’m talking thick slices of warm and tender focaccia filled with mortadella and pancetta, or a thick slice of frittata — either way, a generous and delicious sandwich. Additionally, there are a few meal-sized salads, a choice of two pastas and a fish option. I went for an interesting sounding antipasti salad with speck, gorgonzola, roasted plum and pistachios, and then opted for a classic casarecce bolognese.
The salad is generous, truly a heaping mound, and is frankly quite tasty. There’s a fairly quotidian mix of greens that are brightened with a generous handful of boldly coloured and bitter radicchio; a bitterness that acts as a nice contrasting flavour to the rich roasted plum that is nearly a jam but for its electric acidity. It’s a dense salad, though. Between the strips of speck that line the plate and the whole roasted plums and umami-rich clumps of funky gorgonzola, it’s a meal in its own right.
The casarecce bolognese was also quite good, not to mention emblematic of the style of cooking that defines Mano Cornuto. It seems so classic, pasta bolognese. And yet, the pasta itself, the casarecce (which simply means homemade) is an iconic pasta of Sicily, and the ragu, the Bolognese, is both a staple of Bolognese cooking from North Central Italy and of the Italian diaspora around the world. Casarecce, which are short noodles roughly the shape of a cinnamon stick, are sturdy and have great ridges for collecting the chunky ragu. It’s really a sensible type of pasta to use for this kind of sauce. But what I find more interesting is that despite the atypical nature of the dish, it feels utterly classic. That to me is what Mano Cornuto is all about: it embodies an Italianness, one that feels genuine, but in a way that’s hard to pin to one particular identity.
While Mano Cornuto might not be the greatest Italian restaurant in Montreal, it’s certainly a very good one. Italian food is something that we all think we understand. The idea of the caffè, the trattoria, we get, we’ve seen it a thousand times, and yet there’s always a particularity. When the concept is mediocre, it’s a thinly veiled caricature. When it’s done poorly, it’s an insult. When it’s done well, as it’s done at Mano Cornuto, it seems effortless. ■
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