There’s something cinematic about Nina’s Trattoria. Its story—passionate amateur cook with some on-the-line restaurant experience opens up a cozy neighborhood spot, sends out the food of his childhood, and pays homage to his family through their recipes and photographs on the walls—sounds like something Meg Ryan might have starred in back when her face showed more charm than Botox.
And the timing seems right for a project like this: In an age when lawyers’ futures aren’t quite as bright (or as green) as they once were, the symbolism of well-known (and still well-employed) defense attorney Nicholas Nastasi opening a restaurant as he tailors back his practice, replacing his workday suits for a dinner-service apron, is darn near irresistible.
Since opening back in October, this Italian Market BYO has found itself relatively busy, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the kind of place anyone can stop by and feel perfectly comfortable, engage in the sort of cross-table banter that livens up any dining room, and leave satisfied. And while there’s still a bit of work to be done in the kitchen, none of the shortcomings are of the sort that set off warning bells.
Seasoning was a problem that popped up sporadically throughout the menu. Still, even the most egregious instance didn’t ruin a dish of linguine with shrimp and arugula; it simply rendered it bland, little different from what most home cooks might whip up on a weekday night.
What did set it apart, however, was Nastasi’s evident ability with cooking temperature: The shrimp had been shown just enough heat to cook through, but not a moment longer; the arugula was still its fresh vivid green. The pasta, if a touch more done than ideal al dente, still found itself far short of overcooked. I just kept wishing for more salt, more red pepper flakes, more flavor. It was tantalizingly, frustratingly close to successful.
Other dishes suffered less from seasoning (or lack thereof) and more as a result of flavors that didn’t quite define themselves as clearly as they should have. Roasted peppers stuffed with cubed bread, pecorino and herbs, for instance, would have been a perfect treat at a friend’s home. For $7, though, I wanted cleaner flavors and a less aggressive, less dense bread filling.
A side of grilled leeks, while on the money in terms of flavor and texture—their aroma spread across the table like some kind of sweet-smoky perfume—was just too small a portion.
But other dishes won me over, and explain Nina’s appeal. Asparagus patties made stellar use of a vegetable that, elsewhere, has grown a bit tiresome by this time of year. Chopped, bound with bread crumbs and egg, and given a propulsive salty lift by a generous addition of pecorino, these were essentially asparagus fritters, and single-handedly justify lugging along a bottle of Prosecco to sip alongside.
Fagoletti demonstrated how adept Nastasi and his team are with even less familiar preparations. Homemade and thin as a crepe, these fagoletti were bound up, purse-style, with a scallion, and carried within their center a deeply satisfying puree of sauteed asparagus and zucchini as well as mozzarella from Claudio’s. It was flat-out simple and successful, as was the homemade ricotta gnocchi, whose fluffiness often eludes chefs who have been rolling them out for years.
Well-conceived eggplant parmesan was anchored by thin grilled slices of the vegetable, which meant they didn’t have to cook as long, and as a result remained a bit snappier than thicker slices typically end up. Layered with fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella, this dish easily avoided the pitfalls that mar too many eggplant preparations: The sponging up of olive oil. The marinara sauce it was presented atop—sweet, a bit tart—brightened up a number of dishes on offer.
Lamb chops, another recent special, were simply prepared with a confidence that gives me hope for the dishes that aren’t quite there yet. A rub of garlic, parsley, mustard and olive oil raised an otherwise uncomplicated dish above its individual components. Forked with a side dish of brussels sprouts shimmery with the fat of their accompanying pancetta, they were a highlight.
And while there’s often only one dessert on offer, silky, almost cake-textured cream puffs won me over. If you have a bottle of limoncello laying around, and if you find out before leaving the house that these will be on the menu, bring it along. It’d make a brilliant combination.
So while Nina’s does have a bit to go before it really hits its stride, it’s a lovely addition to the neighborhood—a friendly, cheery spot for a pleasant meal, and the physical embodiment of a hope so many people have: To live out their dream one day, no matter what they’re doing right now. In that regard, Nastasi has hit a home run.
910 S. Ninth St.
Cuisine: Southern Italian
Hours: Tues.-Sun, 5-10pm
Price range: $6-$31.95
Atmosphere: Simple, clean-lined, friendly; some music would help, though.
Food: Pleasant right now, with potential for the future.
Service: Friendly, proud, and able to pace a meal perfectly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014