Inside Look: Little Nonna’s, New in Midtown Village

By Danya Henninger  |  September 4, 2013
Credit: Danya Henninger

Tonight marks the debut of Little Nonna’s, the red-sauce Italian from Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. Set on Locust Street in the ground floor of the Independent Hotel, the petite dining room is the couple’s seventh business and fourth restaurant in Midtown Village, joining Barbuzzo, Jamonera and (currently under renovations) Lolita.

As has been the case with all of Turney and Safran’s ventures, Little Nonna’s has an identity all its own. We stopped by for a preview visit earlier this week; click through to check out some seriously enticing food and a peek at the charming decor.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Turney’s menu is built around Italian-American classics - not the high-style cuisine of Italy, but the more down-home food cooked by first- and second-generation immigrants to the New World. That said, you can still expect dishes to have the chef’s deft touch - the cavatelli nero shown here is found under “macaroni,” along with half a dozen other pastas that range from $12-$15.

  • Starter sections called "antipasti" and "insalate" take up the most space on the menu, with 10 small plates like head-on shrimp scampi and beef-veal-pork meatballs ranging from $4-$11. The Caesar salad is made from grilled gem lettuce and served with white anchovies and cubes of crispy polenta.

  • Neither woman grew up in an Italian-American household, but “it’s the kind of food we eat when we go out,” Safran explains. “When we don’t want to worry about being recognized, we head to an old-school South Philly Italian for dinner. I always get linguini with clams, and Marcie gets something with red sauce.” Something, perhaps, like the eggplant Parmigiana above, which Turney spices up by using Japanese eggplant and adding Thai basil pesto and burrata to the plate ($12).

  • Speaking of plates, all of the tableware for the restaurant was found at antique stores and thrift shops, bought with the guiding principle that they are dishes an Italian grandma would have at home. The theme continues throughout the restaurant, including in strings of lights hanging street-style across the ceiling.

  • The flowery dish is outshined by the color and intricacy of Turney’s cauliflower piccata, a seared steak available in the “contorni” section of the menu with four other sides, including a plate of Sarcone’s seeded potato-rosemary focaccia with olive oil for dipping. Entrees start at $22, for grilled swordfish, and top out at $32, for a bone-in 21-day-aged sirloin. Check out the opening dinner menu here.

  • Desserts come from pastry chef Sara May, who honed her sweets skills as confectioner for Franklin Fountain. Her cannoli come with house-baked shells - thin and crispy, not thick and clunky - one filled with roasted-fig-rosemary mascarpone and the other stuffed with ricotta, then rolled in pistachio and dark chocolate. She’s also doing housemade water ice, among other treats, and La Colombe coffee and Harney & Sons teas are available to go with (dessert menu is here.)

  • Seating at red banquettes and tables for 37 inside is complemented by space for just as many outside on the patio. “When we signed the lease for this space and the other, larger one [the former Fish dining room on the corner],” Safran says, “we had no idea this garden even existed.” They are making good use of it - “All Marcie wants to do is add more plants for the trellis, but we don’t have time!” - and the string of lace-edged aprons hanging out to dry is a quaint touch that has already fooled several guests into thinking it was real laundry.

  • The semi-open kitchen, adorned with pots and pans and hanging cheese and spices, is very small, but it was designed to work. “The first 40 are no problem, but when you add the other 40... whew!” Turney says, referring to the additional seats on the patio. To help run the line, she brought in Aaron Sheppard, previously sous chef at Alma de Cuba, as her chef de cuisine.

  • Though there’s not enough room for a full bar, a concise beverage menu provides something for every kind of drinker. Six reds and six whites, all Italian, are available for $10 a glass or $40 a bottle, an easy, affordable price point. (A few fancier reserve bottles are also on the list, “for people who like that kind of splurge.”)

  • House-bottled cocktails are also $10 - all use fresh juices - and if you want a Negroni, all your server has to do is give the mason jar a shake, unscrew the cap to drop in a big ice cube and then garnish it with an orange peel. The real treat on the drink list is the Sgroppino, prosecco and vodka around a scoop of housemade lemon-basil water ice. A few Italian beers and sodas round out the options (view the menu here).

    Little Nonna’s is open 5-10:30 PM, Monday-Thursday; 5-11 PM, Friday-Saturday; and 5-10 PM, Sunday. Reservations are suggested for the dining room, but the patio is reserved for walk-ins. Lunch service will begin later this month.

    1234 Locust St.; 215-546-2100