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!”
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.
35 Things You Must Eat at the Shore