Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Restaurant 10: Nonna

LOCATION: 520 Columbus Ave
DATE: April 24, 2005
FOOD: Sunday Night Feast (6 Course Prix Fixe) – Arancini (Rice Balls); Caesar Salad; Ricotta Stuffed Baked Eggplant; Linguini & Clams; Zeppolis with Honey.
BEVERAGE: Half a bottle Agricole Vallone Puglia 2000; Decaf Cappucino
PRICE: $45.00

Compliments are tricky beasts. They seem to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity in and of themselves. No better example is the distinctly New York slightly backhanded praise of modification which runs, “It’s good…for the upper west side.” As I learned at Nonna, good for the upper west side is the culinary equivalent of “Stephen King is great…if you like horror novels.” I think Stephen King is a mediocre writer (The Shining yes, The Green Mile, good God no). So too was Nonna.

New York Metro, my favorite New York food information source, had recommended Nonna’s Sunday Feast in their Best of New York guide
. Nonna, then, marks the first time I’ve disagreed with the magazine’s food section. Nonna was certainly not horrendous. In fact, I doubt you could have a bad meal at Nonna. But I also doubt that you could have a truly great one either.

Nonna’s Sunday dinner is six courses (sauce and pasta counting as separate courses). Arancini arrived first, fried rice balls filled with cheese. The dish had no integration, as each ingredient could be tasted separately, but failed to combine in a unified whole. It also lacked any discernable spices. Homemade Caesar salad came next, again without enough pizzazz to really warrant attention, a hospital cafeteria plate of lettuce. We were then served the stuffed eggplant, which was actually quite excellent, crispy eggplant, parmagiana style, stuffed with a mound of slightly melted ricotta cheese. The eggplant showed the kitchen has potential, as did the linguine with clams, shrimp and mussels that was the main course. The broth had a light finesse, no goopy puddles of oil or butter anywhere to be seen. The pasta was also loaded with seafood, a surprise for a fixed menu meal that costs only $19. The noodles were slightly overcooked, but overall, this was the second strong course in a row. Dessert, zeppolis with honey, were very average, and I longed for the delectable sfogliatelle of Veniero’s even as I plumbed Nonna’s Italian donuts.

Our waiter was congenial and he had no problem substituting the linguini for the beef dominated meat course. Overall though, the meal felt very rushed. The dishes all arrived one on top of another, especially at the beginning of the meal. This meant that by the time I finished the Caesar salad and rice balls, I only was able to have one bite of the eggplant before it became lukewarm. I associate Sunday night dinners with a casual ease, an unhurried dining to savor the last few moments of weekend freedom before the work week starts up again. Nonna’s service didn’t allow for such pacing.

I also had heard that reservations were a must. They weren’t. We arrived twenty minutes later than our reservation, but the restaurant was only half full. Now, in this type of scenario, I’m always willing to assume blame for being tardy and allow a crowded restaurant to seat other patrons in front of me. But if the restaurant isn’t full, I see no reason why showing up late should matter. When we arrived at Nonna, the hostess commented on our delay, even as my eyes scanned over numerous empty tables. I failed to see what had merited such an attitude. Perhaps she’s only working as a hostess to support her soon to be realized dreams of actress stardom. Right.

Perhaps Nonna was a fitting way to end the day of the Godfather. I had refused to watch the final installment in the trilogy because it’s such an awful movie, and though I admire her skills as a director, Sophie Coppola as an actress is unwatchable. The final Godfather can’t live up to its predecessors. The same is true of Nonna. In a city with Italian wunderkind like Mario Batali and L’Impero’s Scott Conant, and restaurants like Otto, Babbo, Cacio e Pepe (I could go on), Nonna fails by comparison. Once you know how well Italian can be done, it’s very hard (and counterintuitive) to go back to middling variations…even if you are on the upper west side.

RATING: 6.0/10

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