Space and time seem to stretch out in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Single-family homes and multiple-car driveways stretch out on wide, busy boulevards and in rolling communities and side streets lined by big green lawns. Whole decades have a way of coming and going in the Valley, too; restaurants often get years to grow slowly in communities like Burbank and Northridge, a retail feat that simply seems impossible in the many high-turnover neighborhoods on the other side of the hill.
Despite the direct proximity to places like Hollywood, the Valley can often feel — at least at the restaurant level — like a world away. That’s a good thing for the city’s many price-conscious, history-loving, flavor-chasing diners, who flock by the hundreds to enduring legends like Burbank staple Monte Carlo Italian Deli and the attached dining room and steam table setup known simply as Pinocchio Restaurant.
Together, Monte Carlo and Pinocchio date back some 50-plus years, though there have been several ebbs and flows in the space, design, and menus over the years. Yugoslavian-born owner Mark Brankovich, who died in 2001, bought the already-in-operation Monte Carlo as a standalone deli back in 1969, slowly expanding the business over the years to include an even wider array of Italian sweets, sauces, dried pastas, and cold-case deli meats and salads. A wholesale baking operation was added in subsequent years to the back of the property, and still supplies the deli and attached restaurant, Pinocchio.
If anything, saying that Pinocchio is “attached” to the Monte Carlo Italian Deli doesn’t do the long building justice. When entering from the front on Magnolia Boulevard, the two businesses are essentially indistinguishable, separated in name only (unless you count the gelato cooler). To the right is the deli and marketplace, stocked near to the ceiling with cans and boxes and plastic containers, plus a few bartop tables up front for folks snacking on deli goods in the sunshine.
To the left is Pinocchio, a red-sauce wonderland built in 1971 where nearly every Italian-American classic is available from one hand-painted menu board. The food is either presented up front in cafeteria-style hotel pans, or finished in the back in a tiny a la minute kitchen.
Want four giant meatballs, a pound of spaghetti with red sauce, three large cannolis, and a chopped salad? Coming right up. How about a slice of lasagna, a heaping tray of garlic bread, fettuccine alfredo, and a platter of chicken parm? That’s easy — and inexpensive, two key factors that have kept Pinocchio and Monte Carlo in business for so many years.
Entree dishes at Pinocchio hide well below the $10 mark, from Italian sandwiches to full plates of eggplant parm or ravioli in meat sauce. Even loaded large-sized pizzas, available after 2 p.m. only, come in under $20, and heaping side salads barely affect the bottom line. But the craziest price of all found across the multiple menu boards is for house wine, which is offered at a staggering $3.50 per brimming glass.
There is no “maximizing” your order at a place like Pinocchio: It’s all a delicious bargain, and everyone knows it.
“It’s just a fantastic neighborhood restaurant and deli,” says Daniel Kim, a former Burbank resident and longtime Pinocchio fan. “I used to go there with my family all the time, and you’d always run into neighbors, the families who had kids that your kid went to school with. It’s just that kind of place.”
Lines of locals tend to form easily at the start of the steam-table area, where diners queue up and wait for an employee to start asking what they can grab. A pale pink cafeteria tray appears, and the piling on begins. Order too much (it’s easy to do) and a second tray appears out of nowhere, ready for that extra meatball sub or those olive oil-soaked artichokes. It’s a hectic dance for first-timers who may not know the lay of the land, but that’s also part of what makes Pinocchio feel so delightfully antiquated, even for the value-loving Valley.
“Living in the Valley with a young family, price is always a consideration,” Kim adds. Plus, there’s a hominess that makes the place appealing, regardless of how purely inexpensive it is. “I’m definitely not Italian,” says Kim with a laugh, “but I can imagine having an Italian grandmother when I’m there.”
After a quick ring-up at the end, diners — often whole families, office groups out for a midday meal, or fast-paced solo eaters — grab their trays and sidle off to a seemingly endless array of red or black booths set under dim lights. The primary dining area sits right in the action, followed by an ancillary dining area with even more booths, and a more formal (but just barely) third dining room with long tables and large cartoon depictions of the namesake Pinocchio. This is Burbank, after all.
In a city as expansive (and often expensive) as Los Angeles, places like Pinocchio and the Monte Carlo Italian Deli offer a decidedly different approach to casual dining. While Culver City worker types line up for $15 salads in not-so-compostable bowls, diners from all across the San Fernando Valley can drive to and park easily at Pinocchio before diving into red-sauce delights from across the pasta spectrum, and then finish the whole thing off with a cannoli or scoop of gelato for even less. It’s the magic of the Valley, made real at the timeless Monte Carlo Italian Deli corner in Burbank.
Monte Carlo Italian Deli/Pinocchio Restaurant. 3103 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. The deli is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday); Pinocchio is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.