Hungry man’s paradise at Mona Lisa

Just paces away from the best eating houses in Galway, this pleasant restaurant is one of the city's least known but most authentic Italian restaurants. A Sardinian style neighbourhood restaurant with dark wood tables and chairs and the typically open kitchen with busy chef on view, Mona Lisa Café & Restaurant is situated in the heart of Galway’s West End right across the road from the Crane Bar and Massimo. They serve up authentic Italian food in a warm atmosphere with great staff and friendly faces.

If you are in the West End there is no need to make the trip over the bridge when you have such a wealth of choice on your doorstep. There is the elegant Anier, maybe Kashmir for something more spicy, or the friendly folk in Pearla na Mara to visit, and more. Mona Lisa, set on the main drag, is among the more popular of these dining options. It is said that Sardinia is a hungry man's paradise and this is certainly true at Mona Lisa. This restaurant serves a wide range of traditional, homemade, Italian dishes and classic Italian wines. Many of the staff are Italian, further adding to the authentic vibe of this dining experience.

Sardinian cuisine is a celebration of natural products from the land and their surrounding sea. It unites dishes from the ancient pastoral and farming traditions with those based on fish and seafood, and the flavours of the natural ingredients are exalted by the unmistakable aromas of the island’s Mediterranean ingredients. Sardinian cuisine is strictly linked to the seasons and its secret lies in the quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of its dishes. It offers a triumph of unique flavours prepared according to ancient traditions and customs.

After a warm welcome, we were quickly seated and brought some water and a basketful of lovely bread while we perused the menu. We chose the calamari fritti to start and the lightly battered squid was pronounced the best ever eaten, high praise indeed.

It seems impossible to define a Sardinian meal, as ingredients, recipes, and methods of cooking vary greatly from town to town, but as a very rough guide you will find combinations of proscuitto, pecorino cheese, octopus, salami, olives, marinated vegetables, clams, and mussels cooked alla marinara with white wine, garlic, and parsley. During the island's long and troubled history, Sardinia was continually invaded by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Genovese, Pisans, and the Spanish, and many islanders were taken as slaves to north Africa. Understandably, this prompted the Sardinians to flee coastal areas, seeking refuge in the safer mountainous regions inland, where the main sources of food came from pigs, goats, sheep, and large crops of wheat. The introduction of seafood into the Sardinian diet was the legacy of some of the later invaders to the island, and thanks to them you will find a fantastic selection of seafood dishes throughout the island and one of the biggest fish markets in Italy is San Benedetto in Cagliari.

Other regional specialities you could expect are malloreddus, small grooved pasta flavored with saffron and served with tomato, sausage sauce, and topped of with grated pecorino cheese; culingionis, ravioli made with semolina with potato and mint filling; and panadas, a round pie filled with vegetables or eels. Traditional Sardinian meats are spit-roasted suckling pig, baby lamb, goat, and rabbit are also very popular. Another specialty food is sanguinaccio, a pig-blood sausage sweetened with currants and sugar and served roasted or boiled.

The specials menu is filled with good things of the season and a little fusion experimentation, the straccetti di manzo Marco Polo, sirloin beef with peppers and chill sauce, being a case in point. The cooking is as passionate as the menu is extensive in choice, while maintaining the depth of flavours. They expertly incorporate the fundamentals of regional Italian cuisine with special care and attention to detail so that you can enjoy the best of Italy in this relaxed, cosy, atmosphere. We also enjoyed the fregola Sarda, a small round shaped pasta served in fish broth with mussels, squid and prawns, a true regional speciality.

The importance of restaurants to our communities is often overlooked. They provide employment not just to the people working directly, like the chefs and front of house staff, but the nature of the business in that they need many inputs. They are supplied by fishermen, farmers, and butchers. Most of these foodstuffs will usually come from within a short distance of the restaurant, so when you spend money in a restaurant which uses local suppliers, much of your money will go back into that community. Mona Lisa is just that sort of community restaurant.

If you like authenticity in food, good-quality ingredients, and simple cooking that brings the qualities of those ingredients to the fore, then you'll like Mona Lisa. For reliability, consistency, and great food at reasonable prices Mona Lisa gets full marks.

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