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Monti's restaurant in Santa Rosa offers friendly faces, fine flavors

The best thing about Monti's Rotisserie & Bar in Montgomery Village is the daily special from the wood-burning rotisserie.

The special, served only after 5 p.m., changes daily and repeats with each new week, so if there's a special you really love, you can revisit it next week. On Mondays, there's Moroccan barbecued Gleason Ranch goat, served with tzatziki and crispy Meyer lemon potatoes for $25.

On Tuesdays, you're offered pomegranate-glazed baby back ribs with Julyas' wine kraut for $23. Wednesdays, it's spit-roasted leg of lamb with mint pesto and mustard-crusted baby artichokes for $24. On a Thursday visit, our table had

Gleason Ranch suckling pig ($24

?) served on a piadina - an Italian flatbread - with dressed arugula salad, roasted onion and three culturally disparate sauces to dip the succulent pork into: spicy-hot harissa, cr?e fraiche and salsa verde. The shreddy and flavorful pork was the best thing we had all evening.

Fridays, you'll find roast rack of veal with salsa verde and potato gratin for $26. Saturdays, it's crispy Liberty Farms duck served with a sweet-and-sour duck sauce for $24, and on Sundays, smoked prime rib with blue-cheese butter and potato-bacon latkes for $28.

And speaking of smoke, the whiff of wood smoke you smell at Monti's comes from the wood-fired rotisserie that faces the dining room and never has drawn well enough to keep all the smoke going up the exhaust. One person at our table liked it, while another found it annoying.

Along with being a fine restaurant, Monti's is kind of a hangout and watering hole for the older crowd. We're not talking geriatric here, but the folks meeting up at the bar seem more in their 30s to 50s than 20-somethings. A big part of the fun is the competent, gregarious bartenders. In fact, Mark and Terri Stark, the owners, make a point of hiring friendly folks and treating them right. That may be one reason why Stark Reality, their corporate umbrella, has grown to five restaurants in Sonoma County: three in Santa Rosa - Willi's Wine Bar, Monti's, and Stark's Steakhouse; and two in Healdsburg - Willi's Seafood and, added just recently, Ravenous Cafe.

The wine list isn't extensive, but there are intriguing bottles. The 2009 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay from the Alexander Valley is a mouthful of rich Chardonnay flavor for $40 a bottle. The 2009 Ty Caton Red Blend from the Sonoma Valley is $40, and a nicely-aged 2006 Matanzas Creek Merlot is $56. Service at Monti's is pleasant and food comes hot from the kitchen. The staff doesn't fuss over you - and that's a good thing.

But when the dining room fills up, the noise level in the room becomes annoying. All that chatter bounces off the Mexican tiled floor and creates a hubbub.

Paul Schroeder has been the chef at Monti's for years and continues to do a good job on a menu that stays pretty much the same, with seasonal adjustments. It's especially good for lunch, because the menu is filled with all kinds of goodies: oysters, artisan cheeses, small-plate starters like hummus with olive flatbread, soups, salads, pizza and pastas, sandwiches, and - if you're really hungry - entrees of seafood, chicken, pork, lamb, and beef.

Butcher's Board ($15

?) combines house-made and salumeria salumi. The pate on this board is a house-made head cheese. There's an excellent prosciutto, plus three salamis, including a sweet and rustic wild boar salami flavored with cloves and juniper berries. An unusual appetizer is

Crispy Dungeness Crab Briks

($12

?). These are fried, spicy, crunchy, and stuffed with crab, then served on tomato chutney with pickled cucumber rounds and peppers. (No reason offered for the spelling of "bricks.")

A

Wild Mushroom Pizza ($15

?) featured two true wildings, black trumpets and cinnamon caps, joined by radicchio and frisee. The crust was perfect but the pizza was bland. The

Beet Salad ($9

), on the other hand, was loaded with sweet, rich, roasted beets. Toasted almonds, feta cheese and orange vinaigrette helped bump up the flavor.

An order of

Ling Cod ($24

) was the market fish of the night, and while fresh, the fish suffered from too much slippery olive oil. The subtle flavor of the cod was overwhelmed by blood-orange segments, fingerling potatoes and cooked onions.

Desserts saved the day. Meyer Lemon

Pudding Cake ($8

), part pudding and part cake, came with whipped cream and western huckleberries and was a citrusy, berried dream.

Lavender Cr?e Brulee ($8

) was just touched with lavender's slightly medicinal, herbal intensity.

To sum up: Monti's holds pride of place among Montgomery Village's restaurants, offering Santa Rosans a comfy place to meet and eat.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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