"You can’t take a bad thing and turn it into a good thing, but you can take a good thing and turn it into something delicious," says Jorge Mendoza. Jorge is one-third of the team that runs Monica’s restaurant group, which includes Vinoteca di Monica, Monica’s Mercato Pizza, Trattoria di Monica, and Monica’s Mercato & Salumeria in the North End. The latter, an unassuming storefront on the residential end of Salem Street, has some of the best sandwiches in Boston, including an Italian sub stacked with four different cured meats, cheese, and condiments.
The Monica’s mini-empire in the North End stands out from other restaurants in this neighborhood because it somehow manages to attract a mix of people who live in the area as well as tourists who come here for the charming streets and history. The Monica’s group and the three brothers who run it hold an important place in the North End community, and it’s clear that they love their community back. While photographing Jorge and his brothers Frank and Pat on Salem Street, we are frequently stopped by neighborhood residents who want to say hello and catch up. "For us, this is very personal," Jorge says.
The Mendoza brothers, from left: Pat, Jorge, and Frank
The Mendozas immigrated to the United States from Argentina in 1984 and grew up in the North End, making the neighborhood outside of their tiny apartment their home. "We worked part-time in restaurants doing deliveries, bussing tables, washing dishes," Jorge remembers. Working in restaurants helped the brothers learn the business, but they learned about food at home with their mother Monica, namesake of the restaurant group. "My mom was a great cook and cooked for seven people every night," Jorge says. She was raised in northern Italy and cooked the Italian specialties she loved and showed her children how to appreciate good food and good cooking. "She really taught us how to eat," he says, "and you can’t learn to cook until you learn to eat."
The Mendozas opened their first restaurant, Monica’s Bar and Grill, in 1995, 11 years after moving to the United States, and they opened Monica’s Mercato & Salumeria in 1997 as a simple market where shoppers could get Italian ingredients to make dinner. "The market specializes in all Italian products from wine to cookies to cold cuts to spices and herbs, and it showcases a lot of our homemade products," Jorge says.
The store is packed with every Italian snack or dry good you can imagine, as well as excellent prepared items like chicken cutlets, tomato sauce, and house-made pastas and ravioli by the pound. "It’s a place where you can go nightly and pick up the three or four things you need to make your dinner, or if you work late, you can pick up something that we’ve prepared for you with the same care that you would use to make your own dinner," Jorge says.
The mercato is known for having some of the best sandwiches in the area, but the Mendozas never planned on opening a sandwich shop. The sandwich options came after people in the neighborhood asked them to put the cured meats and cheeses that were in the shop in between the house-made sub rolls.
"People would come over to the shop and say, ‘Hey, could you make me a sandwich with mortadella' or whatever, so we started making sandwiches." Frank developed the store’s beloved Italian sub by layering freshly sliced prosciutto, salami, mortadella, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, balsamic, olive oil, and cherry peppers on a roll.
This is where Monica’s Mercato sets itself apart: Any deli will make a sandwich with cold cuts and cheese, but here they take the time to slice everything to order and to the proper thickness. Using hand-cranked slicers, the team behind the counter layers thin slices of imported meat and cheese on rolls that were baked that morning in the ovens downstairs. The Italian sub layers the nuttiness of prosciutto, the spice of cherry peppers, the bite of balsamic vinegar, the fatty quality of the mortadella, and crunchy fresh bread so that each bite is in perfect harmony.
Other sandwiches, like the caprese with fresh mozzarella and the chicken cutlet, are layered just as thoughtfully and are just as delicious. At Monica’s, it’s not about how long it takes; it’s about making the best product possible. "We’re a very old-fashioned group of people," Jorge says.
The Mendozas are currently working on their fifth location, a store focusing on fresh pasta and dry goods, directly next door to Vinoteca di Monica. Jorge says that the company is already thinking about what to open after that, and they’re "open to looking outside of the North End."
But that won’t happen for another year or so. Right now it’s about staying true to their mission of "food that’s not pretentious" and making as much as possible from scratch. When I ask Jorge what it means to be running multiple family businesses in the same neighborhood where the family grew up, he expresses gratitude. "We love what we do, and what we do has been very good to us."
Boston Mainstays logo by Emily Phares