SHAKEN AND GLAZED: Gin, Campari and sweet vermouth glazed lamb ribs at Little Nonna’s.
Perhaps it’s because the dining room is so dark or because they’re so perfectly cast, the lights are the first thing you see when pressing into Little Nonna’s. Draped from one faux-pine-paneled wall to another at jaunty angles, the strings of glowing bulbs give the space a vibe of a backyard serenade, a Catholic school carnival, a South Philly street at Christmastime.
Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, self-styled regents of 13th Street, know a thing or two about tapping into our collective subconscious with smart design choices. Nonna’s is a born charmer. The walls display curvaceous Bundt pans, brass-frame mirrors and flower-print china like priceless artwork. Open cupboards bear antique gravy boats and dinner bells. Red chili peppers and balls of provolone dangle from racks in the open kitchen, where chef Aaron Sheppard, the former Barbuzzo pasta prince, expedites behind a screen of copper pots.
You couldn’t imagine a better stage for this menu, a classing up of Italian-American classics like lemony, garlicky chicken al mattone, beautifully with skin so crispy that it shattered like brûléed sugar. Elements of saltimbocca were translated to a sage-and-Marsala-glazed veal porterhouse paired with roasted sunchokes, a dramatic wedge of oyster mushrooms and La Quercia prosciutto. Instead of standard-issue chicken, perky piccata made its sweet-and-sour moves on a blanched and seared Romanesco “steak” accessorized with pickled raisins, capers and thyme breadcrumbs.
Upgrading these immigrant favorites with quality ingredients, careful cooking and a sprinkling of tongue-in-cheek humor is new to Philly, but it is not new. Carbone in Manhattan will be a year old this spring; its owners (Eli Kulp’s old bosses) deserve credit for attractively repackaging this hybrid genre. Starting with a canon of recipes that has long been dismissed as inauthentic and bastardized is a helluva challenge. How do you convince savvy diners, obsessed with esoteric pasta shapes and charcuterie, that veal Parm is worth their time and attention, let alone $54?
Turns out, it ain’t that hard. Maligned as they might be, these recipes pack universal appeal, no matter what blood flows in your veins. Whether it’s a pot of gravy simmering all day on the stove in the back of an overheated row home or a jar of Ragu zapped in the microwave, this cuisine has woven itself into American food consciousness as tightly as Shake n' Bake.
Little Nonna’s is like Carbone Lite. Instead of sporting custom Zac Posen maroon tuxes, the servers wear black tees and aprons made in Lancaster, and the atmosphere is less Frank Sinatra than Sophia Petrillo. There’s no baller-status veal Parmesan here, just an oval plate bearing reasonably priced boats of tender Japanese eggplant wearing Parm-and-panko crusts, thyme-laced San Marzano marinara, coarse Thai basil pesto and burrata.
All day, Turney and Sheppard make it rain Reggiano on their “macaroni.” I tried two types of perfectly al dente, housemade cavatelli: one violet, the other black, from beet juice and squid ink, respectively. Kale pesto and roasted heirloom squash joined the beet version at lunch; super-tender “two-minute” calamari, soft broccoli rabe and blistered cherry tomatoes joined the inked at dinner. The former was good, the latter exceptional, enhanced by gutsy garnishes of torn mint and pickled Fresno chilies that weren’t for wusses. Nonna’s sparse square footage prohibits a bar to sit or make drinks at, a limitation Turney and Safran solved by house-bottling four cocktails for easy service. But the Italian Job, a fizzy elixir of aged rum and amaro, was too syrupy. I’ll stick to liquor at Nonna’s when it’s glazing meat; the bittersweet, slow-cooked Negroni lamb ribs, set up with orange and olives, was my favorite dish.
The beef, pork and veal meatballs, meanwhile, were my least favorite. Served two to an order over an insignificant swipe of polenta, they were dense and firm as under-ripe grapefruits, with cores of Fontina cheese that was solid instead of molten. Bacon in the accompanying tomato gravy made everything taste overwhelmingly smoky.
Pastry chef Sara May, formerly of Franklin Fountain, soothed the meatball offense with grown-up, Concord-grape water ice slushed with prosecco and an Italian cookie tray with cherry-dark-cocoa thumbprints that would make you forsake Termini’s and Isgro’s. They could be the next budino (Turney’s signature dessert at Barbuzzo).
What I love most about Little Nonna’s is not the service (friendly and disorganized), the prices (mostly under $20), nor even the food, but the wonderful timelessness that the restaurant radiates. I get this place. My parents would get it. My grandparents would get it. And if by some American Horror Story voodoo enchantment, my great-grandparents, who migrated to South Philly from a tiny mountain town on the east coast of Calabria in 1910, were resurrected for a family dinner one night, they would get it, too. A restaurant that cooks great food is not uncommon. One with an appeal that spans generations, that’s something else entirely.
Little Nonna’s | 1234 Locust St., 215-546-2100, littlenonnas.com. Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11:45 a.m.-2:45 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-10 p.m. Appetizers, $5-$17; pasta, $13-$16; entrees, $22-$32; desserts, $6-$9.
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