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Oct 20, 2013 05:36 AM

Philly's Little Nonna's

A small checkered table cloth Italian restaurant. Not sure about the table cloths. The feel, the smell and the food is exactly what one might be looking for on a dark back street in Rome. We asked that the antipasto be all vegetarian, the result was exceptional with tasty cheeses, olives, roasted vegetables and breads. The shaved salad was quite tasty and so crunchy fresh. A grilled caesar was nicely cheesed and had a perfect dressing, even for those who might make the unforgivable choice of no anchovies atop. The spaghetti was sauced with Nonna's special "gravy"with large, succulent meat balls of Barbuzzo fame. One of the best basic pasta dishes this poster has recently enjoyed. No soup for you! The special soup was only special in its absence, strange. Many other items delivered to close by table will be ordered at our next visit. A special house bottled cocktail of Campari, Aprol and grapefruit was interesting but either and soda is better for me. Good friendly service and an addition to our list of places we find enjoyable also with good friendly prices.

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  1. Visited once on what I believe was close to their opening. I would mostly concur with your review. I did find it odd that they would not provide bread for the table and perhaps some olive oil. The menu is quite limited but with that said very thoughtful items offering adequate choices. I too loved the sauce and the meatballs, the egg plant dish was quite nice also. I thought my salad, the grilled caesar with lovely white anchovies, was quite a few leaves short of adequate even for a small salad. Interesting choices of affordable wines and special cocktails. Good service and ambiance at this small "family" Italian.

    1. I'm pretty sure this restaurant is deliberately going for an Italian-American Little Italy theme, not "dark back street in Rome."

      1 Reply
      1. re: barryg

        My thoughts immediately took me to holidays in Rome and the lively trattorias in neighborhoods that are frequented by locals, serving local sourced meats and vegetables with old recipe sauces in small intimate cellar or store front restaurants. Considering the Italian diaspora, perhaps, just perhaps Italian-American Little Italy themes arose from the country of origin. But maybe not, if not I stand corrected, so sorry.

      2. Visited last night and I must say I was underwhelmed. Definitely a small cramped space where you were conscious of your neighbors at the next table over. Very small menu and if you DC doesn't eat pork, you rapidly have very few choices to choose from (even less if you are a vegetarian). Wine list was reasonable, but it was a joke that they said they had italian sodas when they had flavored pellegrino. Make your own italian sodas already.

        Had the beet, and pear salad with kale and riccotta. Nothing to write home about. The Lamb rib appetizer was good meat but definitely over cooked. The mains were better. Branzino special was well cooked, and nice vegetables with it. The calamari pasta dish was well flavored, very nice pasta.

        All in all for 80 dollars plus tip not a bad meal but this restaurant is getting too much hype for the quality of the food served there and given the choices of good italian food in Philadelphia definitely does not rise to the top of the places I would recommend. It is definitely not a "comfortable" space to dine in. I wish they would remove one table spread the tables out more and improve the menu choices. Going to be a while before I return for dinner here.

        5 Replies
        1. re: cwdonald

          I was waiting for another review of Nonna's to add to my experience and the comments by Edward. Common threads which run through posts are small space, limited menu, bottled cocktails not great, main dishes were tasty,good pasta, great meatballs, reasonable price for CC. While I expected a small space your suggestion of removing a few tables would be an improvement. I agree with Edward on the need for bread-on-the-table at N/C.

          The Italian food experience in Philadelphia is something one frequently hears about. While I have had good Italian-American at times: I would love to hear suggestions as to what/where is considered "the top of the places I would recommend". When I am asked I find I am responding with places I have found to be good, interesting but nothing great. Thanks

          1. re: Bacchus101

            Ive had a couple very good meals at Eatalia In Port Richmond recently. Not going to blow your mind with creatively but excellently executed classic Italian BYOB concept. They have a great gravy, very good fish entrees, homemade lobster ravioli, unusual antipasto plate (peppers stuffed with ricotta, grape leaves, some other surprises), very reasonable prices with big portions.

            1. re: barryg

              Me too, though I've only been there once. It's a menu that's been done many times before at other places, but better than most of them (places like Pesto, La Viola, etc.)

          2. re: cwdonald

            Hi CWdonald,

            What are your favorite Philly Italian places?

            1. re: asmith

              I waited to answer this because, frankly I am not a fan of red gravy old school restaurants. These days my go to italian are amis and osteria. In the suburbs I go to two local places.. Il Melograno in Doylestown and Bacci in Buckingham. I admitedly have not spent a lot of time at the myriad of byos that philadelphia proper has. I in general am looking either the simplicity of Roman or Northern Italian inspired food, or just standard italian comfort food... linguine con vongole, caccio et pepe etc.

          3. LaBan writes one of the most positive two bell reviews I have read in a long time...

            To call that space intimate is the same as calling a telephone booth a spacious apartment.


            1 Reply
            1. re: cwdonald

              cw, yes indeed, a very positive review for garnering only two bells. I agree with most of his observations with the exception of the garlic bread which I found not good and too expensive for 4 slices at $2.00, no bread on the table still annoys me. I love the meat balls but definitely understand his point regarding the need for the cheese center. We had more of the side dishes with our friends this time and all, yes all were excellent. Thanks for the link to the Leban review some how I had missed it.

            2. We finally made it to Little Nonna's, for Sunday dinner (they opened early at 3PM for Easter), and we had an excellent meal. Much better, in fact, than some of the prior comments in this thread might have led me to expect.

              We started with a couple of the house-bottled cocktails, which were both very tasty and refreshing:

              SICILIAN RUM PUNCH: Rum, Amaretto, fresh-squeezed pineapple, lime, blood orange ($10)--ordered 2 of these, it was so good

              ITALIAN LEMONADE: Citrus vodka, house-squeezed lemonade, thyme syrup ($10)

              For two people, we shared the following, which was so much food that we couldn't really finish the single water ice we eventually ordered for dessert:

              GARLIC BREAD: Scarone's seeded loaf, roasted garlic butter, sea salt ($5)--I would agree that it's not the best garlic bread I've ever had, and I would prefer it to be crisper. But I liked the roasted garlic for spreading.

              B+V+P MEATBALLS: Fontina-stuffed beef/veal/pork meatballs, soft polenta, San Marzano gravy ($11)--I'm guessing this might be Little Nonna's signature dish, and it was indeed very good. However, I thought it was rather heavily spiced for my taste, and because of that, I could see it being something you would feel strongly about one way or the other. Interestingly, when the meatballs were cut open, there seemed to be a lot less cheese in the center than in the photo accompanying Craig LaBan's review, so perhaps they cut it back due to his comments.

              STEAMED MUSSELS: Fiorella's hot fennel sausage, charred corn, roasted long hots, garlic, white wine, basil ($12)--Excellent, right up until the moment I bit off half of the long hot and started hiccuping uncontrollably. Showoffs deserve what they get!

              RICOTTA CAVATELLI: Housemade duck sausage, olives, garlic, broccoli rabe, smoked ricotta salata ($14)--Also excellent, this was my second favorite dish. I loved the texture of the perfectly cooked pasta.

              ITALIAN SEAFOOD GRILL: Calamari, Gulf shrimp, roasted peppers, swordfish-zucchini speidini, white beans, salsa verde, lemon ($24)--My favorite dish, this had it all: tender shrimp, acidic artichoke, perfectly cooked calamari, excellent grilled bread for sopping up the juices...I will order this every single time I visit.

              LEG OF LAMB: We didn't actually have this special, although it was sitting eye-level on the counter staring at us all afternoon, and it looked very tempting. But I'll post a photo of it anyway.

              WATER ICE: Blood orange, basil ($6)--Well-made, and easily large enough for two. I'm sure many will like it, but it seemed just a bit unbalanced for my taste, with an awful lot of basil, covering up the citrus, and it was pretty sweet too.

              WINE LIST: Fairly short, but with a good range of styles, and affordable. Didn't recognize many of the names, but I did enjoy a glass of Montepulciano ($10). Good stems.

              Attractive, somewhat homey space, and I especially like the missmatched "Italian grandmother's" dinnerware. The noise level was moderately energetic, but not excessive, despite the full house. And I didn't find the space at all cramped, unlike some of the other commentators. But of course we sat at the kitchen counter (which is not reservable, and available on a first-come, first-served basis). However, you can look at the photo below, and judge for yourself. I gather they also have an ~40 seat patio, but I'm not sure if that was open yet.

              $126 (not counting tip), which I think was reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we enjoyed (considering we left stuffed to the gills!). Service was excellent, although there was not a great deal of interaction with the 4 chefs in the kitchen. All the plates stacked in front of us tended to inhibit any possibility of conversation. I think making that counter a bit more open would be desirable (3 of the 5 high-top seats were unoccupied the entire time we were there).

              Easy parking at an open-air lot a block away on the corner of Locust & 13th.

              This is actually only the second time I've been to a Val-Mar restaurant (the other being, Lolita before it closed for remodeling). I have to say I was very impressed. Whether this really is a genuine ode to red sauce South Philly, I can't say for sure. I don't really go to those types of places, since none of them ever seem to be sufficiently praised by anyone who isn't already biased by having grown up with them.

              But I did find Little Nonna's plenty good enough to stand on it's own, irrespective of whatever historical influences it may have been influenced by.

              1 Reply