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History, tasty Italian cuisine on menu at Mona’s

Toluca is a city of less than 1,500 citizens, and yet it has twin Italian restaurants of wide renown located within a short city block of each other.

When you mention it to someone not from central or north-central Illinois, they tend to give you a suspicious, doubtful look.

That’s only because they’ve never been to Mona’s or Capponi’s.

Mona’s – the original, founded in 1933 by Nildo “Mona” Bernardi – eventually led to neighboring Capponi’s (opened in 1934 and a down-the-street competitor until 1965), Bernardi’s (2001 in Washington), Bernardi’s II (2005 in Pontiac) and Bernardi’s Pub and Italian Eatery (2008 in Dunlap) all becoming part of the Bernardi Italian Restaurants family.

Walking in and being treated to an old-world Italian meal, it’s easy to see why the Mona’s way has been so successful for coming up on nine decades.

Salads, bread, drinks and smiles from the friendly, small-town staff start the meal.

(Pro tip: The crusty-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle bread comes with butter, of course, but skip the spread. A bottle of Bernardi’s Infused Dipping Oil and a shaker of Parmesan cheese will be waiting for you at your table. Mix them together for an amazing bread-dipping delight. Love it? You can buy a bottle of oil at the register to take home for under $10.)

If the bread and salad leave you wanting more before the main event, a good-sized menu of appetizers includes the always-popular mozzarella sticks, breaded mushrooms, Mona’s sausage bites, fried ravioli, bruschetta and a giant, amazingly yummy pretzel.

As for the main course, Mona’s is, being an Italian restaurant, famous for its pasta. Spaghetti, lasagna, tortellini (aka La Salle County ravs), mostaccioli, fettuccine, shells Florentine and pasta primavera served with their famous marinara, meat or Alfredo sauces are all on the menu, among others. The marinara sauce, especially, stands out – layered with flavors, speckled with spices, thick and clinging to the pasta.

But Mona’s – and Capponi’s too, the Toluca twins share mostly identical menus with a few small variances – is not just a pasta place. It also offers plenty of other main-dish favorites such as steaks, burgers, ribs, pork tenderloins, seafood and, perhaps the most must-try item on the menu, fried chicken.

Mona’s fried chicken is a specialty unto itself. For the best of both worlds, order it “Family Style” to sample the chicken, salad, choice of potato or rice, bread and a side of spaghetti and tortellini.

A few delicious desserts are available too, such as Eli’s cheesecakes or spumoni ice cream … if you still have room for them.

• The Mystery Diner is an employee at Shaw Media Illinois. The diner’s identity is not revealed to restaurant staff before or during the meal. The Mystery Diner visits a restaurant and then reports on the experience. If the Mystery Diner cannot recommend the establishment, we will not publish a story.

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