mona Fresh Italian Food Celebrates Grand Opening Near Katy With Free Pasta

In January, Sidney Degaine and his wife Maria announced the sale of their popular Montrose French restaurant Cafe Azur with plans to open a new concept later this year. The resulting project is mona Fresh Italian Food, a place where pasta, sandwiches and salads are prepared in a fast-casual counter setting where customers go down the line and specify which ingredients they want. mona (the lowercase name is deliberate) located at 19355 Katy Freeway at Greenhouse Road — almost on the dividing line between Houston and Katy city limits.The grand opening celebration is this Thursday, July 26 from 4 to 8 p.m. Anyone who visits gets a free pasta entrée worth up to $8.50. Guests can choose from regular or gluten-free pasta with choice of five toppings, a sauce and add-on chicken if desired. Due to restaurant capacity, only 50 guests will be served at a time so there may be a wait or a line to get in.

The Degaines want to give Katy diners an alternative to fast food restaurants and serve fresh food at a competitive price point. Specifically, Sidney wanted to highlight pasta and knew that would lend itself naturally to a fast-casual setting.  “We’ve been talking about it for four years,” he explains. When I worked in Brazil, I worked with Italians for years and I loved to do the pasta. I’m from Nice, France near the border of Italy, so all my life [I’ve been] around pasta.” He adds that French food does not lend itself well to fast-casual dining but Italian is a natural fit.

At mona, the five-step counter ordering system is similar to that at a Subway, Chipotle, Salata or one of the many quick-serve pizza chains. First, guests choose a base of plain pasta, gluten-free pasta, a sandwich or chopped salad. Next, up to five toppings are selected from a list of 18 options, including roasted bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, caramelized onions and blue cheese. Pick a sauce (chicken broth, vegan pomodoro, Alfredo or pesto) or dressing (housemade balsamic, Caesar, ranch or lemon). For basic orders that stop here, the cost is $8.50. However, diners can keep going and add three more toppings for $2 or six for $4. There are also a variety of proteins that can be added for a heartier meal, including a soft-boiled egg for $2, chicken breast for $2.95, a giant meatball made from certified Angus for $3.90 and burrata for $3.95. There are finishing touches free-of-charge, too, including crushed red pepper, fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, cracked black pepper and housemade herb-infused oil. White truffle oil is available for $1 more. At the end of the line, guests can even trim their own micro-basil garnish.

With 18 toppings from which to choose, plus assorted upgrades, the entrees at mona Italian Food are highly customizable. Photo by Becca Wright

For those who eschew having to make so many decisions, there’s conveniently also a menu of entrées with predetermined ingredients, such as the Florence sandwich with caramelized onions, Alfredo sauce, black olives, mozzarella and ham for $8.50 or Bologna pasta which features housemade bolognese sauce, rosemary, caramelized onions, mushrooms, roasted garlic, chicken broth and Parmigiano-Reggiano for $10.50.

The Degaines employ one man who spends his entire day making fresh pasta. Thanks to an open kitchen, guests can watch him prepare the dough, roll it through a machine and set it out to dry. The vast majority of the pasta he’s making is fettuccine and that’s also the only choice on the create-your-own menu.

One big reason, according to Sidney, is that it’s faster to prepare than other shapes that require additional machines. He uses the thinnest setting on the pasta machine, “0”, which results in a pasta that cooks in 30 seconds. In contrast, thicker pastas or more complex shapes must be precooked and reheated for the same speed of service and the quality would not be ideal. Simplifying the choices makes visiting mona easier for anyone who wants a fresh meal quickly, including from parents with young kids, students and the office crowd.

The interior of mona Italian Food is fresh and vibrant with an undercurrent of green plants and French wall paper designed after European verandas.Photo by Becca Wright

That said, the vibrant decor might encourage guests to linger. “We really wanted to invest in the decoration because that stays forever,” says Sidney. “Why not make it beautiful even for fast-casual? The kitchen is fresh and the decoration is fresh.” He says he chose the green and brown color palette himself for the 50-seat space. Live plants fill pots and hang from the ceiling with vines draping the arms of chandeliers. On one side, French wallpaper displays visions of a European veranda whie live tomato plants greet guests upon entry into the restaurant. There’s a handful of tables outside for those who want to dine al fresco.

Pasta, sauces and toppings are also available to-go for at-home cooking. Prices are $6 for a 200-gram box that serves two people or $10 for a 400-gram box that serves four. Servings are based on 100 grams per person. (It’s worth noting that the average package of store-purchased dried pasta considers 56 grams a serving.)

For now, the beverage offerings are limited to fruit-flavored Pellegrino and French-style drinks infused with dried fruit in flavors nuit d été (strawberry and raspberry), hibiscus, and lemonade. mona is adding wine and beer once it gets a liquor license. Expect red and wine whites from Italy and California, plus a selection of local brews by the bottle. The espresso machine is also forthcoming for espressos and cappuccinos made with illy coffee, a corporate Italian brand.  Desserts include traditional Italian tiramisu, Nutella tiramisu, fresh strawberry panna cotta and pistachio Nutella panna cotta for $4.99 each.

mona Italian Food is located at 19355 Katy Freeway #500. The hours are Sundays through Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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