Mona Lisa in Deerfield Crafts Its Pizza With More Than 80 Years of Experience
There's a scene in Mario Puzo's The Godfather in which Clemenza, having just overseen the assassination of Paulie in the back of his car, says to his partner, "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis." It figures a rough mobster like Clemenza would turn his thoughts to food immediately after whacking an old friend. Death, after all, is common. But dessert — now that's something special.
I have to confess: Were I Clemenza and were those cannolis from Mona Lisa Coal Oven Pizza in Deerfield Beach, I might have considered leaving the gunman behind. Because at Mona Lisa — the South Florida leg of an 80-year-old bakery from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn — the cannolis are worth offing someone for. The shells are made fresh daily, and they're flaky and airy in all the ways good pastry should be. They're piped with sugary, cinnamon-enhanced ricotta (properly pronounced "ree-coat-ta") that pours out of the crackling sides with each bite, leaving a pleasant tingle on your tongue.
Pair them with a shot of onyx-hued espresso and a seat in Mona Lisa's sunny, red-brick dining room and those cannolis are just about flawless. They're only one of the dozens of Italian-American pastries the 40-seat restaurant bakes daily, from lobster tails, a confection shaped like a shellfish and dotted with cannoli cream, to sfogliatelle, a filo-like shell filled with orange-scented cheese. This is to say nothing about the European-style pizza Mona Lisa serves, crisp and flaky-thin, cooked at 850 degrees in the restaurant's coal-burning oven until the crust is taut and slightly charred — a thing of beauty, just like the smile in that famous painting.
Mona Lisa's proficiency with dough is the sort of artistry that can come only with time, passed down over three generations of kneading, proofing, and baking. It began in 1923, when the Sicily-born Raphael Camastra opened the shop to serve bread to the Italian immigrants living in and around Bensonhurst. Since fresh bread shares so much in common with good pizza, the leap to serving pies made perfect sense for the small shop. "It was a bread store during the day, but all the bread was made at night," explains third-generation owner Steven Camastra in his thick New York accent. "So during their down time at lunch, they'd make pizza in the coal oven for the customers in the neighborhood."
Like his father before him, Camastra went into the family business at an early age. He loved baking so much, it became his life. By 14, he was forming loaves and tossing pizzas seven days a week; by his early 20s, he had opened his own location a dozen blocks away.
Five years ago, after handcrafting countless braided loaves and Italian cheesecake and fresh sfogliatelle, Camastra sold the second Mona Lisa and made like so many other New Yorkers do: He hung up his apron and moved to Florida with his family for a well-earned early retirement. Only the life of a retiree didn't last for long. "My wife and I were used to working all the time," he says. "We needed something to keep us busy." To keep from going crazy, the couple opened Mona Lisa Coal Oven Pizza in 2008.
Camastra may have left New York for its sunnier suburb, but his love for the city's history hasn't faltered. Step inside Mona Lisa and you're immediately transported to a Brooklyn tenement: There's a clothesline draped with baby clothes and brassieres that stretches from the wide glass windows to the domed pizza oven in back. The walls are covered with dark-framed pictures of famous Mafioso, many of them taken in their final, bullet-hole-riddled moments. But most of all, there's the smell: the scent of dough rising, of caramelizing crust, and housemade mozzarella pocked with bubbly brown char.
I wanted my family to sample the life's work of the Camastras, so I brought them to Mona Lisa a few weeks back for a couple of its thin-crust pies. It was Saturday night, but the patio outside the restaurant was empty. Inside, the place was packed with families and snowbirds chowing down on prosciutto sandwiches and rosemary-flecked chicken wings draped with sticky-soft onions.
We waited maybe five minutes for a cozy booth situated just underneath a couple of photos of dead mobsters. "He doesn't look too happy," said my first-generation Italian grandmother, Mary, pointing at the picture above. It was a photo of gangland underboss Willie Moretti lying in a pool of his own blood, killed in New Jersey while eating lunch, of all things. "I guess it means we should enjoy our meal," I said to the table. "You never know when it might be your last."
Fortunately for us, that won't be a problem. We started off with one of Mona Lisa's DaVinci salads ($10.95), a huge bowl of romaine and arugula lettuce lavished with tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, olives, blue cheese, and sweet raspberry vinaigrette. "This salad is amazing," said Donna, another of my dinner guests, stealing bites from neighboring plates after finishing her own. I, on the other hand, was really digging the coal-oven chicken wings Mona Lisa makes ($8.95). You can get wings like this all over South Florida these days, but here they're done expertly — caked in rosemary and garlic and broiled in that coal oven until the fat renders away, leaving tender skin and meat so juicy that it practically squirts when you bite it. Our waitress informed us that each order of wings would take about 15 minutes to come out — my guess is because Mona Lisa doesn't par-cook these bad boys ahead of time.
The restaurant does spend an inordinate amount of prep time on its stellar pizzas. According to Camastra, almost everything used on their pies is made from scratch. Mozzarella is made in-house daily, as is the tomato sauce, which comes only from fresh, naturally ripened tomatoes, not canned. He even has his crew toiling over the water they use in the dough, filtering and distilling it across multiple days to achieve just the right texture. Most important, since Camastra is now "hands off" in the kitchen, he flew down two of his pizzamakers from New York and set them up with condos on the beach to ensure that Mona Lisa's quality would be right.
The place breaks its pies down into two categories: Margherita is cracker-thin crust with a light spattering of tomato sauce over fresh mozzarella. Another sauceless pie called the bianca is made moist with creamy ricotta. We ordered one of each, topping the Marg with ground Italian sausage and slivers of meaty portobello mushrooms and the bianca with thick slices of tomato and fresh chopped garlic ($19.95 each for large; $14.95 for small). What I wouldn't do for an endless supply of Mona Lisa's bianca pizza, the buttery-rich interplay between squeaky mozz and oozing ricotta enhanced only by a few shreds of hand-torn basil leaf. I could've done without all the garlic, which tasted raw. But the acidic slices of tomato introduced flavors in the creamy cheese the same way a good wine does when paired with food.
The Margherita, on the other hand, had lost some of its crispness from all the toppings. It was still a great slice of pizza, with the earthy taste of sausage and mushrooms taking center stage. But I thought the supreme perfection of a simple, basic Margherita was better exemplified when I had visited a few weeks before and ordered a small pie with no additional toppings. There, the bright, clarified flavors of Mona Lisa's ingredients really shone. And that crust, like a brilliant piece of fresh-baked bread, stayed firmer on the small pizzas.
It was the crust, in fact, that was Mary's favorite part. "This is outstanding," she said, savoring the semolina-flecked end pieces of her Margherita. It's amazing that with lesser pies, those crusty bits are usually discarded. Here, you wouldn't dream of wasting them.
Though we were already stuffed — and trucking home an entire pie's worth of leftovers — we just had to end our meal with a chocolate-covered cannoli ($4.95). And maybe a few éclairs ($3.95). And some housemade tiramisu ($4.95). While we're at it, how about a few more of those cannolis to go and one sfogliatelle, because... well, why not? Like those mobsters on the wall, we can't exactly take any of it with us when we move on to that giant meatball in the sky. But as long as we're here, let's make like Clemenza and eat up.
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