Mona Lisa 

102 11th Ave. N., Nampa 208-442-1400. Open for dinner Tue.-Sat., 5 p.m.-close


City lights sputtered on as we drove westward into what many city dwellers consider the unspectacular suburbs—once quaint farm towns turned bedroom communities. It was an unpleasant journey on a road too worn, and one made unnerving by impatient commuters and the harsh neon signs of commercialism punctuating the countryside. Exiting the speedway was a temporary relief cut short by the realization that we'd landed in a nearly foreign land, with our already vague geography muddled by construction and development. We were hungry and harbored some trepidation that our memories had steered us wrong while we passed one unfamiliar building after another. At last, there she was. Emblazoned on a giant plastic sign, softly lit and coyly smirking, La Gioconda beckoned.

Our noses pinched with the cold, acrid night air as we made our way through a pockmarked parking lot and into an inconspicuous entrance. Suddenly the world was comfortably European and bathed in candlelight. Years prior to our arrival, the restaurateurs put great effort into modeling the building's inside as though it were the winding outside streets of an old-world city. And each night, the staff takes care to seat diners in semiprivate dining spaces away from the din of other customers. Having had the forethought to reserve a table, we were whisked through the hamlet and into a quiet corner surrounded by wine bottles emptied by patrons prior.

The experience provided from a half-dozen previous Mona Lisa visits had me prepared for the major choice between a la carte dining and the fondue for two ($33 per person); and as we were two, the choice was hardly a choice at all. Waffling over cheese and chocolate is the most stressful aspect of being a couple. We fingered less traditional choices for the evening, choosing DaVinci's Pesto Garden and the Decadent Delight, but were irresolute on a wine choice until the affable Joel—who tended to us throughout the night with perfectly pitched, witty restraint—cracked a bottle of something we'd mentioned and offered a sample. It was a well-executed up-sell.

An herbed vinegar sauce (one of my favorite things about dining at Mona Lisa) and bread accompanied the first course of salad, which arrived already tossed in a creamy house ranch dressing. Take two had us figure-eighting in a melted pool of Swiss, brie and pesto. Without any consideration as to how our physical limitations would fare against the two courses yet to come, we licked every last pearly drip of cheese from morsels of bread, fruit and fresh vegetables. Fondue "have-nots" incorrectly deem a swim in cheese as the pinnacle of the Swiss cuisine. Not so at Mona Lisa. The flame-lit pot made its exit for course three, which required an electric raclette and a measure of patience while shrimp, vegetables, nuggets of filet mignon, pork, Cajun alligator bratwurst and chicken took turns on the grill. It's at some point during this third course that the deception perpetuated by bite-sized food becomes apparent. Diners are offered additional bits to be grilled or dipped, and as we forged through a plate of meats, rosemary mashed potatoes and vegetables, it was quickly apparent that the additional request for teriyaki filet we'd plotted would put us too far beyond a comfortable fullness. It's also at some point that Mona Lisa's true sauciness shines through. While excellent as stand-alone sauces, the six dips—from a cranberry horseradish to a curry mustard—aren't needed, which ultimately is a compliment to the meat's quality. Dessert is the denouement. Our "decadent delight" of white chocolate, caramel and a dusting of toffee chunks lived up to both parts of name, and later that evening—after we'd made a slow retreat back to the glow of the city lights—we did penance for having left so many sweets untouched on our dessert plate.

—Rachael Daigle wears a fondue mask before bed each night.

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