Mondo Bondo Offers Mondo Bang For Your Buck
Does everyone have Power Plant Live! and Power Plant all sorted out? The Power Plant is the cavernous old structure down at the Inner Harbor that now houses Barnes & Noble, the Hard Rock Café, and ESPN Zone, although you may also remember the nightclub P.T. Flagg's that operated there back in the late 1980s following the spectacular failure of the indoor amusement park that occasioned the building's first major renovation.
A few blocks north sits Power Plant Live!, a meretricious entertainment complex set on and around an outdoor plaza, Market Place. On hot summer evenings, downtown workers fill the plaza, moving between bars and restaurants that sound like they were created by comedy writers (Have a Nice Day Café, Babalu Grill, Howl at the Moon). Several of these places are actually very nice. Still, if you walk past Power Plant Live! sometimes late at night, when only a few people are wandering dazed among the blazing neon signs, the complex looks like a futuristic dystopia. You half expect to run into Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment.
Despite its Power Plant Live! setting and its bombastic name, the Mondo Bondo Italian Bistro turns out to be a casual, even modest, restaurant. There's no bar for gigolos and boy robots to hang out, and the spare, pretty dining room seems designed to convey promises of decency and value; it doesn't look like you'll end up paying for the atmosphere. As it turned out, we barely ended up paying for the food.
We had turned up at Mondo Bondo, unpremeditatedly on a Thursday evening, aka Pasta Night, which means a choice of four pasta dishes, a side salad, and garlic bread for $7. Even at Mondo's regular prices--only a few dollars more--these dishes (we had three of them) would have been great deals, especially since we each had enough left over to provide a hefty lunch the next day.
The Italian sausages served over linguine (the other options were meatballs and meat sauce, regularly $9) arrived with two perfectly grilled and almost alarmingly large links of fennel-flavored sausage. And there was plenty of sliced chicken breast in the chicken fra diavlo (regularly $10), a pleasingly peppery and value-conscious take on the classic shrimp dish. We thought the kitchen did a good job with these dishes--they arrived steaming hot, their firm noodles freshly tossed with flavorful, chunky sauces that actually tasted as though human hands had prepared them earlier that same day.
A third pasta dish, a large lasagna (regularly $9.50), was an enjoyable dense version of the standard modern adaptation with béchamel sauce and spinach. One caveat: While the lasagna more than measured up to the old-fashioned bubbly brown, gooey, meaty variety, the menu doesn't clearly state that the bill of fare features a new-school rendition.
A fourth entrée, a regularly appearing special, was a gorgeously prepared pork chop ($13.50), which, I'm sorry to report, has been named the Grilled Phat Ass Pork Chop. It doesn't deserve such vulgarity. Grilled with barbecued onions, the outsized chop arrived tender, sweet, and cooked evenly through (this happens less often than you'd think). Served with mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach, it's worth calling ahead about.
The meal began with an appetizer of calamari ($7), served with a marinara sauce and drizzled with a lime aioli. In retrospect, we could have easily extrapolated the success and tenor of what was to come based on this dish. The squid was tender, the batter light, the accompanying marinara sauce flavorful but not particularly spicy. It was not a great preparation (a little too bland all over), but it was a very good one, and there's plenty of more lackluster--and more expensive--examples being served all over town. We also shared a small (12-inch) white seafood pizza ($11) as an appetizer, which came well-seasoned and topped with small shrimp and scallops.
Worth the trip? Well, Mondo Bondo's not quite special enough for a night on the town (the wine list, reportedly in formation, is spotty at best), and not quite convenient enough to just wander into, but still, it's worth a little effort. I think it would be even nicer to eat outside on the plaza, where you could engage in some serious people-watching while smugly enjoying your splendid pork chops and pasta. Anyhow, Mondo delivers.
E-mail Live!: Omnivore@citypaper.com.