Last week, James Gottwald left his position as culinary director for Rockit Ranch Productions, where he oversaw the food programs for both Rockit locations, the Underground and Sunda. Now, Gottwald and his wife, Jennifer Monti, aim to open Monti's, an authentic 50-seat Philly cheesesteak bar, in mid March near Goosefoot in Lincoln Square.
"I grew up in Philadelphia. [A cheesesteak] was one of my favorite things to have and I can't find a great one around here," Gottwald said. "I'm going to make a great one, it'll be authentic with high-end ingredients." For his, Gottwald will use shaved Angus ribeye and aged Wisconsin cheddar sauce (instead of Cheez Whiz) on rolls he'll bring in from Philly's Amoroso's Baking Company. And of course, like any proper cheesesteak, it'll be "wit" onions.
"The key I think is the bread or roll," he said. "I've heard so many different theories as to why the roll is better when specific to Philadelphia. What makes the most sense to me is that the natural yeast in the air and the water system there interacts with the structure and flavor of the bread."
Gottwald said Monti's will be a neighborhood joint with a menu that has something for everyone. He'll offer an approachable cheese plate ("your mama's cheese plate") and veggie crudités; three types of hot wings (Buffalo, spicy and "the other I'm still playing with"); burgers; hoagies (cold Italian style roast beef, turkey, etc); and a veggie cheesesteak. He said he's working on developing a gluten-free cheesesteak roll. Monti's will also have a full bar with "killer cocktails" that are still being developed, but one is the Dirty Mouth martini with garlic juice, garlic-stuffed olives and more, well, garlic.
Monti's, which took over the space last occupied by the chili-focused Cinners, will also have Gottwald's own flat pie-cut 12- and 18-inch pizzas. He'll make the dough on site and cook the large "pizzeria-style pizza" in a 30-year-old reconditioned double deck oven he sourced from RAH Equipment in Round Lake, Ill. He'll forego creating a massive pizza menu with numerous gourmet 'zas in lieu of offering topping options, including lobster and truffles "without whacking people over the head with a huge up-charge."
The casual space is classic Chicago with exposed brick and tin ceiling. There's a neon sign of the Monti's logo hanging over the bar, which is poured red cement with a black-shelved back bar that's bookended by two large mirrors. For seating, it's mostly high-tops with stools, but if you want to get cozy, there are three banquettes toward the back.
Gottwald said he'll stay on with Rockit Ranch as a consultant through the opening of their new River North restaurant, which is reportedly going to be a Korean BBQ. "I've been with them since they opened," he said. "They've been great to me, but it's time to move on with my beautiful wife, Jennifer."
· Monti's [website]