Classic Italian Kitchen Gets Welcome Upgrade at Casa Nonna
New York City-based BLT Restaurant Group, best known in the area for its acclaimed BLT Steak, has taken a new direction with Casa Nonna, which opened in September a few blocks from Dupont Circle. Reflecting the hominess suggested in the name — which translates as grandmother’s kitchen — Nonna’s concept is authentic Italian fare served family style, but with flair, exuding a theatrical zest for life à la Sophia Loren.
Leading the dramatic effort is executive chef Amy Brandwein, who brings impressive credentials for interpreting Nonna’s concept from her time as executive chef at Roberto Donna’s Galileo and Bebo Trattoria, and more recently at Fyve restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va.
Shying away from the exotic preparations that characterized her work at Fyve, Brandwein hones in on traditional, classic dishes for Nonna’s menu. Her strategy is a good one as it allows her to focus on preparations that highlight the quality of a few main ingredients in each dish. For instance, the artichoke antipasto, prepared Roman style in olive oil and garlic, is perfectly selected. Each bud is small and firm without being fibrous and marinated just enough to absorb the flavors without becoming greasy. The dish shines for its simplicity. So too do the grilled baby octopus and fried squid starters, both of which are excellent.
The simplicity extends to the pastas, which also rely on just a few flavors for full impact. Whether a straightforward pomodoro or arrabbiata, or a more-involved ravioli or lasagne, all are well executed. When Nonna first opened, the pastas were served in quarter-pound, half-pound and one-pound servings. The menu has changed and now offers one simple size intended for two people (or a very hungry one). Requests for half servings have met with no success — which unfortunately limits the opportunity for small parties to sample different types of pastas. If you can only choose one, the stracci mi manzo — thin, wide, rag-like pasta with hearty slow-braised beef short ribs and tomato — is perfect for a cold, wet fall day.
On the portion sizes, both salads and main courses are made to be shared, and this is one of its challenges at Casa Nonna. People dining alone are somewhat limited in what they can order if they want to avoid having too much food (or paying too much). The family-style sizes might even be too much for some twosomes.
Still, Nonna succeeds in a crowded culinary concept. There’s no shortage of chains in the area purporting to offer authentic family-style Italian cuisine. But there is really no comparison with Nonna. Brandwein is careful to ensure that nothing is overdone, and by avoiding the excesses of other Italian restaurants (ingredient- and portion-wise), she breaks from the ubiquitous concept to offer her diners a much better experience.
Meanwhile, New York-based design firm Guerin Glass Architects has transformed what was the old California Pizza Kitchen into a beautiful new space using warm earth tones, terra cotta floors, dark brown walls, honey-colored woodwork, burnt orange leather banquets, and brilliantly polished copper surfaces that set off a few striking pieces of art. The large space, divided by tall shelving partitions into four areas, has an open and airy feel reinforced by the ample space between tables. A curved, marble-topped pizza bar at the center of the restaurant has space for 10 diners to watch their pies crisp up in the mosaic-tiled, wood-fire pizza oven.
The pizzas themselves are interesting, and here perhaps you can see Brandwein’s more creative side pushing through. The Nonna — zucchini flowers, fried egg, tomato and mozzarella — is an unusual combination, but one that works well. The Emilia — with fennel sausage, rapini, tomato, mozzarella, pecorino and garlic — is more intensely flavored but equally good. Nonna’s pizzas are like typical pizzas found in Italy — thin crusted with scant toppings. While those expecting a hearty American-style pie may be disappointed, Brandwein’s careful balance between crust and topping, and between the toppings themselves, produces a light, simple and effective dish that works as a shared starter, main course or even as a snack.
Entrées though are limited to a smallish sampling of the classics: shrimp scampi; fritto misto; chicken piccata, parmigiana and diavola; veal Milanese and saltimbocca; a T-bone steak; and grilled swordfish puttanesca. Each is executed with fidelity to the traditional style of preparation, and each draws its strength from it, although the swordfish — prepared with tomatoes, peppers, garlic capers and black olives — has appropriate echoes of the Mediterranean.
Nonna offers a nice range of desserts, with light and refreshing sorbets featuring flavors such as lavender pear, passion fruit and grapefruit (to name a few). The tiramisu is a subtle take on the classic, lacking that strong coffee punch that overpowers some versions. Nonna’s Panna Cotta with figs was mild and rich, but for the biggest taste, the chocolate hazelnut semifreddo wins hand down.
With a lower price point, Nonna is more widely accessible than BLT Steak, and with its location, it is well positioned to serve as both a business lunch destination as well as a neighborhood dinner and weekend spot. The bar is comfortable with striking high tables (the tops are made of wine crates), an admirable cocktail menu (the blood orange margarita and white peach bellini are delightful) and a reasonable wine list (with some unusual and interesting choices). It all makes for a nice night out lingering over a few choice small plates — if it weren’t for the noise. With its high ceilings, open space and hard surfaces, Nonna can be quite loud, even on less crowded evenings.
When Nonna debuted, it experienced typical opening-week problems with the service. These seem largely to have been addressed, and recent visits have shown a much more efficiently run operation. If things continue to improve, Dupont Circle diners may have just found a welcoming new casa for classic, casual but highly creative Italian fare in a family environment.
1250 Connecticut Ave., NW
Phone: (202) 629-2505
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.;
Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.;
Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
Small plates: to
Antipasti platters: to
Reservations: Accepted and recommended on weekends
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.