Marcella Hazan, who died last month at 89, taught me almost everything I know about Italian food.
“Not everyone in Italy may know how to cook, but nearly everyone knows how to eat,” she wrote in her first book “The Classic Italian Cookbook.”
I was thinking of Hazan during dinner at Little Nonna’s because it was clear executive chef Marcie Turney and her chef de cuisine Aaron Sheppard understand the simplicity of Italian food prepared with the freshest ingredients available.
Italians have a saying, “First you eat with your eyes.” Unfortunately for me, Edward and all the diners at Little Nonna’s, this was impossible to do. The room was so dark, patrons were pulling out their cell phones and turning on the flashlights to read the menu. The print was so light and fine, it took a while to discuss the bill of fare.
That said, we began our journey into Italian-American Philly, specifically Sunday dinner at Nonna’s house.
We ordered a bottle of Dolcetto ($40), which was rich with dark fruit and drank well with our meal.
Wild mushroom arancini ($8) were such a hit, Edward said he could eat eight of them. Arborio rice was turned into crispy risotto, mixed with heady, chopped wild mushrooms, tossed with a bit of buffalo mozzarella and topped with truffle aioli. These Sicilian treats were crisp on the outside and slightly creamy on the inside.
Forget all the wretched eggplant Parmigiana you have been served in Italian-American restaurants. Little Nonna’s version ($12) was a triumph. Japanese eggplants, which are not bitter, were coated in crumbs and crisp on the outside. There was not a soggy lot on the plate. Fresh, light burrata, fragrant fresh basil leaves, a bit of Thai basil pesto and a rich marinara dotted the plate. The eggplant halves were fanned out like long flower petals.
Since an Italian meal is a progression of courses, we wanted to share a pasta. Linguine vongole ($15) is a mainstay in Italian restaurants, but I was intrigued because this classic at Little Nonna’s was prepared with Virginia cherrystones. These clams are large, so I was surprised to find little necks used in this dish. Still, the pasta was freshly made, napped with a light sauce of white wine, garlic and a pinch of hot pepper flakes. Little crispy nuggets of fried pork cheeks added a lovely crunch and salty flavor that made the dish enjoyable. We asked our server to have this course split in the kitchen, but we were fine with being served family style.
Swordfish ($22) can be very tricky even in pricey restaurants. It is, more often than not, overcooked. Sheppard knows how to prepare it. The fish was done oreganata style which means breadcrumbs, lemon and oregano were pounded together and served as a coating for the fish. Some tiny, briny capers and a few golden raisins were added to the piccata sauce along with some cauliflower, which I could not detect.
Lemon chicken “al matone” is a dish I wanted to try. Italians sometimes use a brick to sear or pound ingredients. I found Little Nonna’s chicken ($24) to be a tad overcooked. My entrée consisted of a half Lancaster county chicken simply seared with garlic, lemon and oregano. I missed the crisp skin that results in roasting a chicken, but the dish was flavorful with the addition of grilled baby artichokes, which were a little salty, and fingerling potatoes.
Our dining experience was hampered because it was so dark in the room. Tiny, dim lights hang from the ceiling, and a single votive candle made it difficult to eat with our eyes. Although our server told us the air conditioning was on, it was much too warm in the room.
Service was excellent. There was a fine rhythm to our meal, and even though the restaurant was full, we did not have to wait long between courses.
Little Nonna’s has a garden for those who wish to dine outside. It is open for lunch and dinner, and reservations are a must.
Three tips of the toque to Little Nonna’s.
1234 Locust St.