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The artistry of Mona Lisa Pasta

Artisan Italian dishes straight from the deli and wood fired pizza oven

<p>The shop has fresh, homemade pasta packaged for customers to easily prepare at home, as well as made-to-order lunch and pantry goods.</p>

The shop has fresh, homemade pasta packaged for customers to easily prepare at home, as well as made-to-order lunch and pantry goods.

As someone who grew up eating Italian food homemade by my Nonna, I’m pretty hard to impress when it comes to my native cuisine. Even so, the food at Mona Lisa Pasta earns my praise. I grabbed dinner from the locally-owned Italian deli to bring home to my five roommates for under $35. The cozy take-out shop is perfect for any Italian craving, with affordable prices and flavorful dishes.   

Mona Lisa Pasta is located on Preston Avenue, a 15-minute bus ride or 30-minute walk from central Grounds. They are open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I suggest calling ahead so that your food is ready for pick up — I experienced a 45-minute wait on my Friday evening order.

Mona Lisa Pasta was founded in 2001 by Charlottesville local Jim Winecoff. His eatery strives to emulate the traditional Italian deli, using local ingredients to produce the best taste possible. The shop has fresh, homemade pasta packaged for customers to easily prepare at home, as well as made-to-order lunch and pantry goods. The aisles are stocked with Virginian and Italian wines and artisanal dry goods, while an abundance of cured meats, cheeses and olives are on display in the deli cases.

The small store’s Italian flair was immediately apparent when I walked through the doors. There were at least five Mona Lisa pictures on each wall. A brick pizza oven was featured at the center of an open kitchen, ablaze to prepare pizza “old world style” — with thin crust and fresh ingredients, cooked on hot brick. Atop the full deli cases by the cash registers were mounds of handmade pasta, artfully arranged in piles to present the various flavors. The bustle in the open kitchen and behind the counter reminded me of being at my Nonna’s, with the chatter among the employees and the smell of basil wafting through the air.

Mona Lisa Pasta does not have a dine-in option — they only sell grocery items and take-out dishes. This appealed to me as a first-year without easy access to a kitchen as I could grab ready-made food to go. I was a little disappointed, however, that they did not serve cooked pasta. I instead ordered a sampling of dishes among their sandwich, pizza and dessert offerings.

I started with the Da Vinci Sandwich, which piled Genoa Salami and Sopressata — dry-cured pork salami — atop provolone, tomato and a mountain of mixed greens on a baguette. The flavorful combination of meat and cheese was delicious, but it was overpowered by what felt like a whole salad’s worth of arugula. The baguette was smeared with a delectable sun-dried tomato pesto that I wish there was more of, but it too got lost in the salad. For $6.99, the sandwich included high-quality ingredients for an affordable price. The flavors worked beautifully together, but the proportions of the ingredients were not exactly proportional.

My roommates and I needed to try Mona Lisa Pasta’s fresh brick oven pizza for ourselves, so I also ordered a 16-inch large pizza and split it into two flavors — half Margherita and half mushroom and pesto. The enormous pizza was $20 and had enough slices for all five of my roommates to eat multiple pieces. The Margherita half was exquisite, with fresh tomatoes adding a sweetness to create harmony with the mozzarella and buttery pine nuts. My favorite part of the whole pizza were the basil leaves hidden beneath the layer of cheese, which elevated the dish with that warm, familiar basil flavor.

The mushroom and pesto half of the pizza had an earthy basil pesto base, complemented by a sprinkling of sweet caramelized onions. Sautéed savory mushrooms balanced the milky blend of provolone and mozzarella, pine nuts added a delicate crunch and rosemary brought a woodsy taste that rounded out each bite. The mix of flavors and textures made it my favorite slice of the night, especially as a person partial to pesto-based pizzas.

The only way to eat dessert in true Italian fashion is with a cannoli, so that is exactly what we did. The small cannoli from Mona Lisa Pasta was worth every cent of its $1.75 price. The creamy ricotta filling was heavenly, with sweet chocolate chips that melted into the cheese. The fried dough was baked to crispy perfection, crumbling into the most delightful bite. 

The food was not only tasty, but it also traveled well, which is important for a shop that only does take-out. Through the rain, wind and our bumpy bus ride, we carried the food safely to our dorm in perfect condition. The sandwich never got soggy, the pizza never got hard and the cannoli shell stayed crispy. The hardest part of transportation was resisting the urge to open the boxes and start eating before we got home.

The impeccable flavors and low prices make Mona Lisa Pasta a new staple of mine for an Italian-style meal. The small menu allows the chefs to hone their craft on a few quality offerings, elevating each dish to satisfy any palate. I will definitely return for my next picnicking pizza or the next time I crave a cannoli like my Nonna makes.


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