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Nonna vs Lucia

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AugustusMedici Dec 15, 2013 09:41 PM

TL;DR Nonna > Lucia

What's everybody's thoughts on Italian?

If I'm not mistaken, I think the general consensus is that Nonna and Lucia are the only real Italian joints in Dallas. It's my favorite cuisine, and as such, me and the gf have become regulars at both establishments. I can say, unequivocally and based on frequenting both places for two years, that while both are great, Nonna is better than Lucia.

Having said that, I think Lucia has more cachet and exclusivity, due mainly to their small size and location. It's such a shoebox of a restaurant with a corresponding reservation policy that hypes the place up so much. Lucia doesn't hit the spot for me, as it seems almost painfully Tuscan. Odd pasta combinations such as seaweed linguini and clams or raviolis soaking in parmigiana brodo that aren't bad but aren't what I'm looking for when I think Italian. I'm not looking for spaghetti and meatballs, but come on. For lack of a better word, Lucia's food is a little "weird."

When I go to Nonna, the place just scratches an itch, know what I mean? The pastas are fantastic and at least feel authentic. The menu in general is larger and more diverse. They actually have a liquor license and offer far more wine options by the glass. The desserts change daily (aside from the mainstay panna cotta, semifreddo, and toffee pudding). David Uygur does a fine job handling desserts in addition to being exec chef at Lucia, but Nonna has a dedicated pastry chef in supplementing Julian Barsotti and the results are apparent.

I can honestly say I've never had a bad meal at Nonna. It's been great to perfect everytime. I have had mediocre or worse meals at Lucia, particularly one time when the seabass was horribly overcooked.

If I could only go to one, it'd be Nonna. They seem to be regularly busy, but I'm a little sad they don't get quite the prestige that Lucia seems to.

What does everyone else think?

  1. twinwillow Dec 15, 2013 11:13 PM

    I have to totally agree with you regarding Nonna. It's not only my favorite Italian restaurant in Dallas but overall, one of my favorite restaurants, period! I obsess over every dish on their menu.

    3 Replies
    1. re: twinwillow
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      AugustusMedici Dec 16, 2013 08:49 AM

      Haha I've fallen into the same menu trap at Nonna too! Especially since they update their dinner menu online daily. Yet another aspect that I feel Nonna handles better than Lucia, who only post sample menus for the month.

      But I don't want to rag on Lucia too much. It's still a good place, and they do have a couple things that I feel are superior to Nonna. 1) Their housemade charcuterie is great, particularly the nduja. I think I've only seen nduja at Nonna maybe once or twice. It's popped up on the menu at CBD Provisions and at FT33 once, but it remains an elusive sausage and their rendition is by far the best in Dallas. Lucia also makes culatello, which can be hard to find anywhere in the US. Nonna did have culatello once, cheekily described on the menu as "smuggled from Italy." I respect Lucia for making all their meats in-house. 2) Lucia's bread! Nonna's bizarre pita-ish flatbread is good but not ideal for mopping up sauces scarpetta-style. Lucia's loaves of wholesome bread is just divine.

      I do wonder how these places stack up against Nana Tata in Ft. Worth. I've never been there, but I've heard it's excellent.

      1. re: AugustusMedici
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        gavlist Dec 16, 2013 10:03 AM

        Nonna Tata in Ft. Worth is good, but it's not in the same class as Nonna or Lucia. From what I've seen, they're pretty squarely in the standard, red-sauce Italian style. Sure - there's risotto and gnocchi and other dishes without red sauce. But nothing really creative or interesting. And the food is good... I'm not trying to disparage it. I'd be happy to eat there if it was in my backyard - but I found that a trip out to FW to eat there was a bit disappointing.

        1. re: gavlist
          twinwillow Dec 16, 2013 12:26 PM

          I agree. It's OK, IF you happen to be nearby. But, I would never make a special trip from Dallas for it.

    2. g
      gavlist Dec 16, 2013 10:35 AM

      They are both great restaurants. But I fall squarely in the other camp. I'd most definitely take Lucia over Nonna.

      1) authenticity. This is kind of a strange argument, but I think that Lucia is more authentic in spirit than they might seem. Uygur usually makes a point to emphasize ingredients that are seasonally available here in Dallas, rather than going out of his way to stick to the classic recipe. He breaks down whole pigs, and is more likely than Barsotti to put offal on the menu. And what's non-authentic or weird about stuffed pasta served in brodo?

      2) What you call weird, I'd call adventurous or interesting. OK - the seaweed pasta wasn't all that fantastic. But in general, I find that Uygur's excursions away from the norm to be highly successful.

      3) As AugustusMedici mentioned, the housemade salumi is the best in town. Certainly the nduja, but also the speck and lardo are incredible. They once ran parallel boards of salumi made from red wattle and mangalitsa hogs. Where else are you going to have the opportunity to taste both pigs side by side? Lucia's chicken liver pate is also fantastic.

      4) I may be an outlier here, but I typically am not typically a fan of desserts. I think Lucia's are outstanding - among my favorite desserts in the city. This is because they're not overly sweet, and because they often incorporate savory elements. Like the gelato made from candy cap mushrooms, or the carnaroli rice pudding that is somehow simultaneously light and rich. Often I'll have one together with an amaro (selected by Jennifer), and these pairings are occasionally stellar.

      5) At either restaurant, I only get appetizers and pastas (generally small portions), so I can't comment on the entrees. Maybe Nonna could have the edge here.

      6) Lucia is cheaper, and I prefer the atmosphere (possibly because I typically sit at the counter, facing away from the dining room chaos).

      7) the bread, the warm olives, the wine list (which is extremely reasonably priced and more concise than Nonna's), etc.

      In fact, I'd say that the only thing I prefer about Nonna is that it's easier to get a reservation. I still thing that Nonna is an excellent restaurant, but it never reaches the highs for me that Lucia hits routinely.

      7 Replies
      1. re: gavlist
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        AugustusMedici Dec 16, 2013 05:17 PM

        All valid points. Lucia is definitely more "authentic" than Nonna. In fact, I think Nonna might veer more towards the Italian-American side, though not to Olive Garden levels. And I have to concede that Lucia is cheaper and feels louder/friendlier.

        What I meant by Lucia being "weird" is that it's just not as appealing to me personally. I can't think of how many times I've looked at their pasta selections and felt very "meh" about it. I'm specifically thinking of the spaghetti with cauliflower and breadcrumbs. Or the seaweed linguini. Or the faro verde. All fine pastas, but nothing that hits the spot. Now compare them Nonna's pastas: lobster ravioli, spaghetti alla amatriciana, scarpinocc with the pork sugo, anything cacciatore! I much prefer Nonna's pastas, even if they are less adventurous.

        I'm not a big fan of offal, so perhaps that's my limiting factor with Lucia. David does seem to be in love with tripe. I am sad I missed the salumi faceoff :-(

        Like I said, I just feel like Lucia is painfully Tuscan to a fault whereas Nonna is more pan-Italian. I guess this just suits my sensibilities better. Different strokes!

        1. re: gavlist
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          Mike C. Miller Dec 17, 2013 05:22 AM

          I tend to lean more toward gavlist and prefer Lucia. But with caveats. First, I don't get to Lucia as often as I would like. I don't live in Dallas any many trips come on relatively short notice. So I don't get to Lucia as often as I would like and thus have a small sample. Second, as all have pointed out, both restaurants have their strengths.

          But first and foremost in my mind is the first point that gavlist made. I think Lucia is more authentic. I can imagine having most dishes I've had there in Italy (and yes, most of my Italian travels have been in Tuscany). There is a simplicity, a sensibility, and an honoring of the ingredients that just seems more authentically Italian. Nona does this, too, but perhaps not quite to the same extent. Their salummi is perhaps the best example of this approach. Simple, house made, to the point, and exquisite. (As counter point, I would say that the dish that most exemplifies this approach at Nonna would be the grilled Romaine salad, but I California influence of the avocado looses points for me.)

          But paradoxically, I eat a Nonna ten times for every time I visit Lucia. Why? First, it's closer to my place in Dallas. Second, we can get a reservation. Third, I love their wine list, which is very well selected and has extremely reasonable markups.

          But after decades of Dallas being a waste land of bad Italian, it sounds like we all agree that we are blessed to have two gems in our midst. Frankly, I love them both and to say where one excels over the other is, in some degree, picking nits. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, in my mind, as you can see by the length of my post!).

          And I think that there is room for at least one more very good, moderately high end Italian place here, for that matter. We end up missing out on Nonna as often as we eat there because they are full up, too.

          1. re: gavlist
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            foiegras Dec 19, 2013 05:21 PM

            Very much agree that Lucia is the better restaurant. I don't love it as much as you do, but IMO Lucia is just on a higher plane.

            When I went to Nonna, almost everything was too salty, and I like my salt. This included all of my food, and several dishes others ordered that I tasted. (I wasn't the only one at the table who noticed.) Couple things others had impressed me, but ... whereas at Lucia I've had at least one transcendent dish.

            1. re: foiegras
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              Mike C. Miller Dec 19, 2013 06:29 PM

              Funny you mention the salt at Nonna. I had that problem at a few early dinners there with isolated dishes, but haven't noticed that in quite some time. Maybe just a tad with the lobster ravioli once, but I was sampling off another person's plate and wondered if they had added salt. I'll survey my dining companions next trip to see if anyone else notices. I'm generally very sensitive to too much salt. Was your experience a one off event, or a consistent pattern?

              1. re: Mike C. Miller
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                foiegras Dec 19, 2013 08:27 PM

                I only went once, if that's what you mean ... but it seemed to be endemic at the table. The sausage was house-made and salty ... when made into pizza it was all good, but when served as a main dish, it was too salty to eat. My experience didn't persuade me that I needed to return ...

                1. re: foiegras
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                  foiegras Jan 28, 2014 08:18 PM

                  Just a PS to my previous post ... I read somewhere that a chef who was a runner oversalted his food on the days he ran, apparently because he needed electrolytes. He eventually learned that on those days he had to have someone else taste his food for him and determine whether it needed salt. Don't know if that's what was behind my experience or not ...

                  1. re: foiegras
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                    AugustusMedici Jan 29, 2014 05:16 PM

                    It's funny you say that because I have definitely seen Julian come in wearing marathon T-shirts. He certainly looks like an avid runner, though I have no idea.

                    I personally have never had issues with salt at Nonna. Maybe good luck on my part or bad luck on your's?

          2. p
            pgwiz1 Jan 28, 2014 03:10 PM

            Ok, what I am about to say, people won't like. I've been to Nonna only once, and it was during one of their special seafood dinner nights. The part that sticks in my mind is that their pasta was over cooked (borderline mushy). I know, I need to give them another chance, and I will. But if an italian restaurants can't do al dente pasta, then that is just not good. Their desserts and first courses were fabulous. Sad...

            Love Lucia. Their fresh pasta was cooked perfectly!

            7 Replies
            1. re: pgwiz1
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              gavlist Jan 29, 2014 08:57 AM

              I went to one of their special seafood dinners not too long ago, and I'd say it was decent, but not up to their usual standard. Honestly, I think they bit off too much work - rather than develop a set course menu with, say 5 new dishes, they created an entire menu of new dishes... something like 20+ new things to cook, for only 3 or 4 days. It doesn't surprise me that their execution suffered a bit... nor does it excuse overcooked pasta. But I'd say that, on average, Nonna does a better job than that.

              I would still give Lucia the edge. Recently they've been serving a rich, creamy, almost soup-like bagna cauda with lightly cooked vegetables, a sous vide egg, and shavings of white Alba truffles. so good.

              1. re: gavlist
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                pgwiz1 Jan 29, 2014 11:04 AM

                omg, that just made me drool a little bit...kinda inappropraite at work. haha! I wish getting into Lucia didn't require so much planning or waiting for the bar seat. I'd def. go more often!

                1. re: pgwiz1
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                  AugustusMedici Jan 29, 2014 05:14 PM

                  As a follow-up, I actually just went to Lucia last night with a couple friends. They have new stuff on the menu, my favorite being the nduja arancinis. The steak "crudo" was a bit of a letdown. The marrow is smeared so thinly on the bread, you can't really tell it's there.

                  Is it just me or is Lucia's menu creamier/richer than Nonna? Like the aforementioned bagna cauda, it feels incredibly indulgent eating there.

                  I so wish David would update his secondis. It's always the same: duck breast, steak, pork chop, or a seafood item. I swear it feels like the secondis haven't changed for at least six months.

                  1. re: AugustusMedici
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                    gavlist Jan 29, 2014 05:43 PM

                    yeah, I almost never order the secondi. The times I've had them (mmm... veal chop!) they've been good, but the variety that I get from an appetizer and a small pasta appeals to me more. Also, I always feel like the David's entrees emphasize rich-on-rich combinations of ingredients, which become a bit too much with larger portions.

                    good question about the relative richness... Let's see...

                    on the current menu, Nonna has the following pastas:
                    veal ragu, cream and parmigiano (rich)
                    ricotta tortellini with suckling pig ragu (rich)
                    farro spaghetti (light)
                    gnocchi with oxtails (rich)
                    chittara with calamari (light)
                    amatriciana (light)
                    carbonara (rich)
                    kabocha squash tortelli (rich)
                    bolognese (rich)
                    lobster ravioli (light)

                    Lucia has:
                    spaghetti with octopus (light)
                    tagliatelle al ragu (let's say rich)
                    risotto bianco (light... but it has chicken livers)
                    fonduta langaroli with truffle (rich :)
                    gnocchi with oxtail (rich).

                    So, just for the pastas, Lucia has 3 rich and 2 light, for a rich-ratio of 0.6. Nonna has 6 rich and 4 light, for a ratio of... 0.6!

                    of course, this is based on my guess about how the dishes come out. I did a similar rundown of the antipasti, and both come out around 50/50.

                    Maybe the rich Lucia dishes come out richer... actually, I think you're right in this regard, but I guess I like that.

                    1. re: gavlist
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                      foiegras Jan 30, 2014 01:42 PM

                      You're cracking me up with your rich ratios ;)

                      Very interesting about the marathon Ts, Augustus!

                      1. re: gavlist
                        p
                        pgwiz1 Jan 31, 2014 10:25 AM

                        I'm glad I'm not the only one who would've approached the richness debate with some good old math :). love it!

                      2. re: AugustusMedici
                        g
                        gavlist Feb 28, 2014 05:00 PM

                        last night, at Lucia, I had what might be the richest dish I've ever eaten. Smoked sweetbreads stuffed into mezzaluna, topped with hedgehog mushrooms and wilted green garlic and some parmigiano. The sauce was a massively reduced stock... so rich and viscous. It was almost too rich... but amazingly good.

                        Also there was a really nice roasted beet risotto, with small cubes of bacon and topped with some grilled (I think) radicchio.

                        And a simple but ultra delicious "warm salad" of sauteed baby artichokes on top of ricotta, all covered in shaved fennel and grated bottarga.

                        oh - and candy cap bomboloni (basically donut holes) on a base of walnut butter with sliced pears and dollops of pear butter. Ridiculous.

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