We Call it ‘Gravy:’ Memories and tastes abound at Little Nonna’s

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Oct. 30, 2013

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Warmth and comfort: Little Nonna’s meatballs are worthy of worship. (Photo by J.R. Blackwell)

Opening up a red-gravy restaurant in this town takes guts. We, after all, are known far and wide as one of the great hubs of the Italian-American culinary tradition. Indeed, Philly is a town built as much on Sunday gravy as on our collective immigrant and colonial history.

But the risk inherent in a venture like Little Nonna’s is reduced almost to nothing when the brains and palates behind it belong to Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. From Spanish to Latin to Mediterranean and beyond, catalyzing inspirations turned consistently into veritable culinary gold shows that they have the chops to produce any gastronomical challenge.

I should start, then, with the spaghetti and meatballs, because if you’re going to serve this earthy dish, it had better be pretty magnificent. Precious few of us—regardless of whether or not we’re Italian—can twirl a forkful of this common pasta without comparing it to the thousands of other versions we’ve slurped over the years.

So with apologies to mothers and grandmothers all over the region, I’d hazard a guess that this version is, in a lot of ways—and I don’t say this lightly or without a full understanding of the ramifications of doing so—probably better than your mother’s. The meatballs, ridiculously tender and oozing from their center with fontina cheese, may as well be religious idols, worthy of worship. The noodles are dressed in a marinara sauce with just enough acid to slice through the pulls of smoked meat on top. With a side of garlic bread (joined, brilliantly, by a head of roasted garlic), it’s both a Proust-style evocation of my childhood and a transporting, contemporary update of a classic.

Caesar salad is unabashedly creamy, the lemon-bright dressing emulsified with real skill, the polenta “croutons” comforting and delicately spicy. A lunchtime sandwich of thin slices of moist pork shoulder porchetta reposing on a Sarcone’s (of course) seeded roll alongside sharp provolone, dripping-good rabe and horseradish actually made my very-pregnant wife swoon—in a good way.

The wine list is fairly priced and well-constructed, the service is friendly and casual, and the space—from the warm interior to the movie-set courtyard out back (there’s even “laundry” hanging up there outside, a heartwarming reminder of what’s inspired this gem of a restaurant)—is perfect for the family concept adapted for 2013. To all of which I offer a hearty “cent’anni!”

Little Nonna’s
1234 Locust St. 215.546.2100. littlenonnas.com

Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11:45am-2:45pm;
Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm.
Cuisine: Italian done right.
Price range: $4-$32.
Atmosphere: Pleasant, casual and inviting.
Food: Comfortingly good.
Service: Friendly and welcoming.

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1. glen broemer said... on Nov 5, 2013 at 01:44PM

“but is it a proust style evocation of my childhood? you might analogize the dishes to your private parts. some review.
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? the Democrats' great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L --though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and, when it's completed, 9th Circuit 11-56043.
Typically operating through puppets--including puppets in the judiciary--the right wing has for decades been committing crimes and trying to classify them to cover them up, a move explicitly forbidden by the Code of Federal Regulations. They've killed & stolen several of my pets and routinely shoot energy weaponry at me and my pets, despite my calls to the police, the FBI, Congress, and despite my petitions in court.”

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