On a recent weekend night, Molto Bene in Lakewood appeared to be the busiest place on Earth. Every seat in the dining room was filled, as was the small waiting area, and diners still continued to cycle in and get added to the list. Other customers dropped by to pick up take-out orders, joined by others still who were popping in simply to grab a scoop or cone of gelato from the cashier. Throughout it all, servers were left to navigate the narrow channels like nimble tailbacks slicing through an offensive line.
Granted, Molto Bene, which opened its doors two months ago, seats only 30 guests and does not accept reservations, but still. Judging by the immediate and overwhelming reaction to the place, you'd think that they had birthed a cuisine and decided, through generosity of spirit, to give it away. Neither, of course, is true. What the restaurant does do is take a very familiar concept (Italian-American), repackage it in an attractive manner, and serve it up to a community that, oddly, is lacking in pasta.
For more than 20 years, owner Gonzalo Egozcue has been making gelato for sale at shops and restaurants all over town. His company, GelatoStar, supplies popular Italian spots like Osteria, Mia Bella, Presti's Bakery and Vero. He and his wife Lilliana decided to branch out from the gelato game and into the full-service restaurant business because, as he so artfully puts it, "The summer's too short and the year is too long."
Through a clever combination of design, branding, timing and location, the couple produced a restaurant that very quickly has ingratiated itself to neighbors and the neighborhood. The bright, petite, cute-as-a-button eatery is bedecked with oversize prints of la bella vita, set against snappy mustard-colored walls. No tablecloths conceal the hardwood tables, which pair nicely with the freshly laid wood-look floors. The prominently positioned gelato and sorbet cooler lends a certain authenticity to the Italian tableau.
Meals begin with a serving of warm triangles of fresh-baked dough, presented alongside that ubiquitous bowl of balsamic vinegar submerged in olive oil. That vinegar might as well be gold because there's no way to actually retrieve it through the protective buffer of oil. The bruschetta is less of a, well, bruschetta than it is toasted slices of good-quality bread paired with a bowl of ripe tomato pieces in basil-specked olive oil. For $8, you might expect it to arrive fully assembled as described on the menu, but my guess is that the bread wouldn't hold up to the moisture.
Salads, like the included house version that comes with entrees, and the Caesar ($7), are pert and perky, featuring lively greens and non-stale croutons. That Caesar boasts a luxurious dressing that smacks of garlic and anchovy, both of which are tamed by a healthy addition of nutty Parmesan cheese. Other starters include a prosciutto and melon dish and a well-executed and agreeably portioned roasted cauliflower ($7), prepared simply with grated cheese, herbs and olive oil.
Molto Bene bears out the maxim that pizza, like sex, is good even when it's bad. The dough is puffy and lax, and it lacks any defining bottom crust, but you'll eat and enjoy it regardless. The Quattro Stagioni ($10) is like four pies in one, its rectangular chassis divided into various sections topped with mushrooms, sliced ham, olives and canned artichoke hearts.
All of the pastas we tried were solid. A heaping bowl of penne Carbonara ($17) featured al dente noodles in an appropriately rich, decadent sauce undoubtedly enriched with egg and augmented with cheese. Nubbins of salty pancetta and numerous twists of black pepper provide the bassline. Lasagna ($15) lovers will find few faults (or surprises) with this version, a sturdy construction of noodles, meat sauce and cheese. Even the pasta pomodoro that accompanied our chicken parm ($16) hit the right keys thanks to a bright, fresh, uncomplicated sauce. And the chicken parmesan that sat next to it was textbook: fork-tender white meat filets inside a crispy breaded shell topped with sauce and cheese.
Over the course of two visits, the breakout dish turned out to be the cioppino ($21). An abundance of seafood — clams, mussels, calamari, scallops, shrimp, white fish — swim in a deeply flavorful broth with a welcome kiss of heat. Instead of the toasted Italian bread promised on the menu, my bowl was garnished with plain bread, likely because the kitchen was still emerging from the weeds.
Dessert here is a no-brainer. If you're antsy, you can order gelato to go and have it added to your dinner tab. Or, if you're up for some caffeine, order the affogato ($5), a scoop of gelato "drowned" in espresso. Molto Bene does not have a liquor license but Simone's Beverage is conveniently located across the street, if you know what we mean.