On the first day, there were white tablecloths. People dressed for restaurants the way they did for Pan Am Stratocruisers, and entrées arrived beneath silver domes. On the second day, the kitchen came into the dining room, and the menus were written in chalk. People brought their own wine to dinner, and entrées didn’t arrive at all. Tapas came instead. On the third day, the servers changed into blue jeans. They stripped the lampshades off the lightbulbs, served drinks in mason jars, and pretended supper was happening in a barn. But it wasn’t until Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran opened Little Nonna’s that anyone thought to festoon an outdoor dining area with a laundry line.
I guess nothing says “Come to Granny” like old-timey aprons (illuminated by bare Edison bulbs strung from the rafters, natch) drooping above a patio lined with weather-beaten wood.
Just when you think the march of comfort dining has run out of striding room, it steps into Even More Casual Alley. It’s only a matter of time before some restaurateur plunks a bucket of potatoes in the middle of the dining room with an old man in a V-neck undershirt to peel them. Until then, Turney and Safran’s homage to the ghosts of Philly’s red-gravy past stands at the forefront of the flight from the cutting edge.
That shouldn’t sound like a takedown—at least, not if the leading minds of what used to be called fine dining have been right for the past 10 years, with their waves of foie gras poutine and lobster tacos and General Tso’s chicken wings. Besides, red-sauce restaurants have been in the soul-food business for ages, so better a decorative laundry line and AM-dial oldies wafting through the garlicky air than liquid nitrogen and meat glue in the kitchen.
Turney and chef de cuisine Aaron Sheppard hew close to the familiar at Little Nonna’s. The beef/veal/pork meatballs are braised in “Sunday gravy,” the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, and the tomato-sauced potato gnocchi are way more traditional than the ones Turney pelts with smoked corn and trumpet mushrooms down the street at Barbuzzo. A family-style meal has safe harbors for the smallest toddler and the pickiest patriarch.
Yet this isn’t quite your grandpa’s red-sauce joint, notwithstanding the lace curtains in the window and the self-consciously chintzy plates and flower paintings on the walls. The pesto dotting the tender, crispy-edged slices of eggplant parmigiana carries the scent—if only hintingly—of Thai basil. Those meatballs conceal the sotto voce funk of fontina at their gooey cores. And the piccata here isn’t built on veal—or even chicken—but green cauliflower florets showered with capers and pickled raisins. Oh, and if you’re one of those for whom no Italian-American meal is complete without water ice, how does plum-tarragon strike you?
Most of what came my way struck me favorably. With the help of Sal Auriemma of the Italian Market’s Claudio Specialty Foods—Turney’s guru of gabagool and supplier of Calabrian chilies and pasta shells big enough to swallow your fist—she has breathed fresh life into a cuisine that deserves it.
The basic formula puts lusty classics in the middle—think spaghetti with meatballs, pork braciole, or house-made squid-ink cavatelli with squid rings and broccoli rabe, fired up with chilies and cooled down with mint—and more eccentric grace notes around the edges. One night these might be terrifically sweet purple carrots and scarlet turnips from Lancaster, touched with carrot-top pesto. On another, those carrots might accompany grilled romano beans and addictively crisp-tender polenta croutons.
Standouts from the first month included wild mushroom arancini, served with a truffle aioli that showed lovely restraint, and a shrimp scampi featuring four two-bite Louisiana Golds with their heads on and flat-out rollicking with garlic. If every South Philly institution used shrimp this good, they wouldn’t have to call in Gordon Ramsey to turn things around.
There are refreshing salads (my favorite married shaved fennel and celery root with brussels sprouts, lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil), but most of the menu is hearty. Yet aside from those truly giant stuffed shells—stuffed with lamb neck and roasted celery root on one visit, short rib on another, and creamed up with ricotta both times—nothing went too far.
Just to be safe, though, order the polenta and meatballs to share; Turney packs her cornmeal with enough cream, taleggio, fontina and parmesan to put the most shameless cheese grits to shame. And you’ll want to have room at dinner’s far end for pastry chef Sara May’s spumoni, which ditches the usual neon palette in favor of a moody sundae richly muddled with roasted cherries, chocolate pizzelles and pistachio-olive oil.
As the restaurant settles into a groove, I hope the pacing will even out. My dinners were more onslaught-and-lull than leisurely amble. That quick-draw style suits Barbuzzo and Jamonera, where every small plate is an exclamation mark. But Little Nonna’s classic fare wants time to simmer in the background of wine-soaked conversation, and is crafted with enough warmth and affection to kindle that most modest yet elusive of pleasures.