By Amanda McDougall - 11/18/10 12:11 AM EST
Grandma’s house has undergone a major renovation: dark-stained wood, high ceilings with exposed ductwork, concrete flooring and large, sidewalk-facing windows.
If you were expecting a small, cozy, immoderately floral home in Casa Nonna (Italian for “grandma’s house”), you might be disappointed. Instead, the BLT restaurant group’s latest Washington outpost is solidly in the masculine territory in terms of design, with just a few hints of nonna in the tins of Italian cookies lining shelves and the randomly placed countrified rooster silhouettes.
Upon entering Casa Nonna from the urn- and herb-filled vestibule, you’re greeted by a large elevated bar area that says corporate hotel lobby more than it does Italian, much less Granny’s living room.
The menu is large and offers various Italian goodies, from antipasti and pizza to salad, pasta and main entrees. Everything is served family style (dishes, intended for sharing, are set in the middle of the table with serving utensils), an uncommon but welcome setup. Seemingly in response to customer outcry over skimpy portions and outsized prices, your server might explain that “this is not Carmine’s or Maggiano’s; we’re about quality, not quantity.” (Sorry, Yelpers, looks like grander portions or lowered prices are not on the horizon.)
Just two months in and service runs like a well-oiled machine. Friendly smiles, attention to emptying glasses and plates and regular check-ins make for a comfortable vibe. Any awkwardness comes from servers and diners jockeying place settings to make room for the large platters and bowls — but isn’t that reminiscent of eating at Grandma’s?
A sizable list of antipasti is a good place to whet your appetite. The grilled baby octopus is tossed with cubes of potato, olives, celery, parsley, tomatoes and olive oil. The supple pieces of tentacle have just the right amount of support from sweet-tart oven-dried cherry tomatoes, briny black olives and the fresh flavor of celery and parsley. Another success is the small bowl of Roman artichokes, marinated in olive oil along with a generous pinch of red pepper flakes; the dainty baby artichokes, naturally sweet, pack a punch of heat that perks up the dish but doesn’t singe the tongue.
Diners should indulge in at least one piece of the crusty garlic bread that comes to the table warm and fragrant just before the first dishes. (Someone in the kitchen is channeling a nonna who carefully brushed each slice of bread with garlic-infused butter.) But they should also be warned not to go too heavy on the starch; the antipasti portions won’t ruin your appetite for pizza, though the garlic bread just might.
The pie at Casa Nonna does right by those blazing 700-plus-degree ovens. The Nonna Pizza is worthy of its signature name: The crust is thin and crisp from lip to tip, miraculously carrying its perfectly tangy tomato sauce, rich puddles of buffalo mozzarella, delicate zucchini blossoms and sunny-side-up quail egg without a sag. The only disappointment with the Nonna pie is that each slice doesn’t have a blossom and egg; you have to choose between the two delectable toppers with each piece.
From the house-made (“Fatta in Casa”) section of the pasta selection, the stracci di manzo is a sure bet to transport you to your Italian grandma’s kitchen, whether you’re of Italian descent or not. Fat ribbons of ideally al dente pasta mingle with meltingly tender pieces of braised short rib and soak up a deeply savory tomato-based sauce; it hits all the right notes for a comforting, satisfying and delicious dish.
For all the bull’s-eyes, two specials missed their marks — the first a ravioli dish with unevenly cooked pasta that went from toothsome to chalky due to undercooked flour. But if you got a good one, the pasta packages were tasty, stuffed with wild mushrooms and decked out with a cream sauce. Another, chicken cacciatore, wreathed with Yukon Gold potato quarters and served in a handsome copper pan, suffered from overcooked, dry meat.
Another main course, the fritto misto, is a mix of battered and fried calamari, shrimp, morsels of cod and slender strips of red pepper and zucchini. The batter is light and fried to a golden crisp, but the chive aioli dipping sauce — an enticing sauce in its own right — might be too heavy for its fritti companions. Of all the dishes, this one seemed vastly overpriced at $35 for what one person with a decent appetite could quickly polish off.
A side of meatballs comes to the table robed in a red sauce and capped with melted cheese: juicy nuggets of pork, beef and veal that could pass muster with any nonna. On the other hand, the side of broccoli rabe, a green treasured for its sharp flavor, was indeed made just like Grandma’s vegetables: boiled to a tasteless oblivion.
Despite its odd, bachelor-pad style, Casa Nonna earns points for friendly, efficient service and a good selection of hearty, homey staples that suggest a grandmotherly touch. It aims to deliver simple food done right, and in most cases it scores high. But unlike at Grandma’s house, you’ve got a check to pay at the end — and Granny’s handmade, home-style cooking will cost you.