Pros: AMAZING food, friendly service.
Cons: Totally cramped and kind of hot.
San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood is chock-full of tempting Italian restaurants, but we selected Mona Lisa after receiving a glowing recommendation from our close friends who are Italian-American. I got a little nervous after reading mixed reviews while preparing for our trip but we stuck with our reservation, and I am so glad we did as this meal was one of the high points in a somewhat disappointing string of dining experiences.
Atmosphere and Service
Located on a bustling street in North Beach, Mona Lisa's biggest drawback is its incredibly cramped atmosphere. There are random pieces of art and sculpture everywhere, including a topless portrait of Mona Lisa. The tables are extremely close together and the air flow is not good, meaning we were extremely hot for the first portion of our meal until some of the groups around us cleared out. Normally these complaints would be enough to put me off of a restaurant but the food was sooo freaking good (as elaborated below) that I would go back again no matter how smushed I had to be.
As for service, Mona Lisa gets an A+. After being timely seated upon arrival we were fortunate enough to be waited on by the owner's charming daughter. She was eager to explain the extensive menu and offer suggestions. She also told us about her father's annual excursions to Italy to learn about new developments in food and wine. Clearly this restaurant remains a family-run joint in every respect, which gives it bonus points in my book.
Yummy, Yummy, Yummy Food
Ah, the food. I have to say that Mona Lisa gave me probably the best Italian meal of my entire life (outside of Italy, of course). The massive menu is a bit overwhelming, but as it turns out everything is so delicious that one might as well just close her eyes and randomly point to a page.
Our group started out, at our server's suggestion, with a trio of appetizers - bruschetta, tomatoes caprese, and Sicilian candy. This combo platter set us back $16.00 but was well worth it. The mozzarella on the tomatoes was some of the freshest I've ever had, the bruschetta a perfect mix of crispy and gooey, and the garlic chock-full of flavor. Although the platter was massively huge we managed to polish it off before turning to the main event.
For entrees, everyone in our group opted for some pasta or other. You name it, its on the menu. I believe we had a couple of lasagnas, a chicken parmesan, a cannelloni, and a gnocchi sorrentina. The gnocchi was mine and was the unanimous hit of the night. It came with giant blocks of mozzarella, a delicious tomato sauce, and the lightest, yummiest gnocchi I have ever had in my life. Often gnocchi is heavy and clumpy, but not this stuff! While my meal was the favorite, everyone enjoyed their ooey, gooey, cheesy, meals. The sauces, in particular, were roundly complimented. Most of our meals were priced in the $12.00-$15.00 range which got us out of the restaurant at a reasonable price even with wine. Fancier entrees include calamari, a half-dozen veal dishes, scampi, and several steaks.
The one regret of our meal at Mona Lisa is the fact that we were far too stuffed to enjoy any of the restaurant's luscious-looking desserts. We sadly waived goodbye to the cannolis, fruit bombas, and chocolate mousse on our way out. Next time I would start with dessert, most likely the beautifully presented lemon sorbetto that comes served in an actual lemon!
Overall . . .
Some sources online describe Mona Lisa as a tourist trap, but we didn't get that vibe in the least. While the restaurant is a bit too cozy for its own good, it is also friendly, funky, and offers absolutely delicious Italian food. Whether you're a San Francisco local or a vacation visitor, you are guaranteed to find your Italian food of choice at this North Beach eatery.