Moccione Montreal Italian restaurant hotspot

Does the hyped Italian restaurant Moccione deserve its status as a Montreal hotspot?

“Partners Luca Cianciulli and Maxime Landry leveraged their Toqué pedigree to open their Villeray restaurant in 2018. The roughly 50-seat restaurant generally books up for the month shortly after a new reservation window is opened.”

Italian food is sometimes a challenge to talk about. As one of the most influential and ubiquitous cuisines in the world, having an opinion on it feels irrelevant — oh, you like Italian food, too? Who gives a shit? But as someone who possesses a great reverence for all the regionality, history and tradition behind the food, I’m fascinated by its enduring allure.

Nearly everyone I know who considers themselves serious about food has some sort of obsession with Italian food. Its inherent simplicity and often incomprehensible ability to be greater than the sum of its parts make it a cuisine that feels approachable yet next to impossible to master. For young cooks and home cooks alike, it’s often the first plate of pasta, or maybe a risotto made from scratch, that truly feels like real cooking. For all those reasons, I think that it’s a cuisine that is claimed by many. 

In Quebec, Italian food is considered the most beloved “ethnic” cuisine. Extremely well-suited to both high and low culture, it is, in a very particular way, baked into the culinary fabric of Quebec. After all, is this not the ancestral home of pizza-ghetti? Ask anyone in the city what the best Italian restaurant is and you’re bound to get a mixed bag of answers. One place, however, might come up more than others: Moccione.

Does the hyped Italian restaurant Moccione deserve its status as a Montreal hotspot?

Partners Luca Cianciulli and Maxime Landry leveraged their Toqué pedigree (where Cianciulli served as sous-chef) to open their Villeray restaurant, to relative fanfare, back in 2018. Since then, the consensus has been that it is exceptionally good. The roughly 50-seat restaurant is booked solid most nights and generally books up for the month shortly after a new reservation window is opened. Despite being curious about this restaurant for ages, it’s taken me some time and some foresight to be able to finally snag a table.

I managed to get a two-top in the first seating on a Wednesday evening earlier in October. When my dining companion and I arrived, the room was already softly humming. This is, above all, a neighbourhood joint. It’s got a lovely design and it feels somewhat posh in a certain way, but the crowd is local and feels representative of Villeray. A mix of 30-somethings, some with kids, some without, neighbourhood lifers in their late 60’s and early 70’s enjoying a glass of wine and a few small plates. All stylish, mostly francophone. 

The room itself feels quite intentional. There’s wood panelling on the walls, beautifully veined granite on the bar and on the countertops, which cleverly divide the different sections. A particularly deft job has been paid to incorporating the distressed concrete wall in a way that makes it feel organic somehow. It does, however, still feel a bit too new. It’s begging for a patina and it needs a decade more to make it happen. There’s also a sense that “homey Italian” was the inspiration but the designer couldn’t help themselves but get a little Scandinavian — a trope too common in Montreal restaurant design. It’s a lovely room — pretty, even — but a bit forgettable. 

Moccione Montreal review
Maccheroni at Moccione. Photo by Maude Chauvin

The beverage program, headed up by another Toqué alum, Maxime Lavallée, has a modest collection of house cocktails (mostly Italian riffs), a small selection of beer and ciders and a more robust collection of natural wines. I’m of two minds on the list. There is ample choice and the list is full of excellent producers but a good wine list, like a good menu, needs to have some vision. At first glance, I find the list to lean a bit too French and a bit too wild considering, after all, that this restaurant’s claim to fame is its classic Italian style of cooking. On the other hand, the wine is very good and maybe works extremely well with the food — we’re talking about a list crafted by a sommelier with plenty of experience creating pairings for tasting menus. Perhaps, I’m being too judgemental — it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. 

We started with a glass of Sans Pagne, a pét-nat of Chardonnay from Loire Valley producer, Ludovic Chanson. Its rich bubbles and ripe baking-apple profile are exactly the kind of thing I look for in an aperitif: something reminiscent of food while being light and fresh and doing its job to whet the palate. To accompany the meal, we had a bottle of Riva del Cillegio from Emilia-Romagnan producer Casè, which was recommended by our server. An evocative and powerful expression of Italian Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero, in this case), the wine is rustic with notes of red fruits so ripe that if you waited a moment longer to eat them, they would be spoiled.

For our first course, we ate grilled artichokes with girolles and fonduta and a classic beef carpaccio dressed with giardinera. The artichokes, quartered hearts with a delicate char interwoven with tender florets of golden girolles, were sublime and easily the standout dish of the night. Smokey and savoury, the artichokes were a substantial and prominent flavour, which I worried would be overwhelmed by the fonduta, and the mushrooms, which I thought would be an afterthought, somehow brought freshness. Though I was assured they were not pickled, I suspect they must have been deglazed with vinegar or white wine, at the very least. The most impressive aspect of the dish, however, was the fonduta — a sauce made of Fontina cheese, milk, egg yolks and butter from the Italian Alps — which was uncharacteristically light and delicate. The dish, despite being a study in the many shades of beige, was excellent, a classic example of how good Italian cooking can be. 

Moccione Montreal Italian restaurant review
Aritchokes fonduta at Moccione. Photo by Juliette Busch

The carpaccio, a staple of the menu since its opening, was also very good. Paper thin slices of raw beef were dressed in a giardinera — a mix of chopped pickled veg and oil — and topped with hefty leaves of peppery arugula and a generous dusting of parmesan. A classic carpaccio like this is hard to find and this was about as classic as you can get. It’s not sensational the way the other dish was but it is unquestionably tasty. If, like me, you like beef carpaccio, I have no doubt this will be right up your alley.

On to the primi. Two pastas, two absolute classics: Bucatini all’Amatriciana and Maccheroni al Ragù. This is really where the mettle of this kitchen is going to be tested. I am not a pasta expert but I am experienced in eating pasta and I know that there are two pasta regions that are never to be trifled with: Rome and Emilia-Romagna. To put two quintessential pastas on the menu is to proudly announce to the world “I am good at making pasta.” So let us see if that claim holds true. 

Both pastas, for their part, were great: toothsome, well-seasoned, the correct shapes, noodles that hold sauce — everything was right. I do, however, have some notes. The bucatini, for me, was the better of the two dishes. The amatriciana sauce was quite good. The slightly funky and beautifully fatty Guanciale — cured jowl bacon — sang in the dish and the pasta was whisliting away while I slurped but I could have used a bit more pepper and I found the tomatoes to be slightly tinny. It’s not to say that they used canned tomatoes (which I have no issue with, for the record), as that metallic taste can be present even in fresh tomatoes. There is also the questionable choice of adding basil, which is not entirely incorrect but, generally speaking, is not done. My two cents: leave it out. 

Moccione Montreal review
Carpaccio at Moccione. Photo by Maude Chauvin

The maccheroni (pronounced the same way as, but distinct from, macaroni) is a tubular pasta that is roughly two inches long. It looks quite a bit like what most would call rigatoni. Moccione’s maccheroni was served in a traditional ragù bolognese — the slowly cooked ground meat sauce native to Bologna. Again, ragù bolognese is just about as classic as you get. Their version was also near pitch-perfect, or void of any obvious faults. The pasta, despite being atypical (ragù is usually served with tagliatelle) worked very well but, like the use of basil, I have to ask why? Maccheroni isn’t a better shape for the sauce than tagliatelle, and if you particularly wanted to use that shape, why pick such a famously opined-on sauce? The reality for both plates of pasta is that, despite being very good, they weren’t perfect and, though mostly faithful to their origins, didn’t blow me away. 

Our last course, pan-fried veal sweetbreads, was undoubtedly the least successful dish of the night. A cluster of beautifully browned sweetbreads were placed on a swoosh of pale grey eggplant purée in which roasted tomatoes were embedded. Scattered across the plate was a handful of pickled Piquin peppers and the lot was topped with both a touch of pesto and veal reduction. For me, it felt like a dish designed by committee — a product of compromise. Someone clearly wanted to run a sweetbreads dish, all rich and unctuous and sauced with a silky jus, whereas someone else wanted to make one final dish with the end of the great late-summer produce. The result was a bit confused, a bit chaotic, and not very nice to look at either. For one of two proper main courses, I find it unacceptable to serve anything less than a delicious dish, which sadly this was not.

Moccione Montreal Italian restaurant hotspot

For dessert, we were recommended the ricotta cannoli. The shell was delicate, crisp and not at all oily, and the ricotta filling, flecked with orange zest, was smooth and beautifully light. A great cannoli but, to be honest, a bit of a cop-out dessert. We also had the tiramisu which came pre-potted in a water glass. It, too, was a nice rendition of a classic but nothing to write home about either. I suppose what I’m looking for is a dessert program that is taken as seriously as the rest of the menu, and for a restaurant that has received so much consistent praise, I would have expected more.

Look, at the end of the day I generally side with the consensus — Moccione is good, quite good even — but it is not a revelation. If you’re wanting to try something new and you can get a reservation, I’d say go, it’s certainly worth experiencing. On the other hand, if you’ve just got a hankering for a solid plate of pasta and a good glass of wine, there are plenty of excellent options in town with a much shorter waitlist. ■

For more details and to make reservations, please visit the Moccione website.

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.