A Taste of Tuscan Tradition to Make a Grandmother Proud

As restaurants become ever more trendy, it is reassuring to come across a place like La Nonna. No walls of mini-TV screens, no waiters dressed head to toe in black, no absentee chef off promoting his latest cable show. But that’s not to suggest it’s dull, either. It’s a jolly, inviting neighborhood trattoria with a spirit of largesse already promised in its name, which means “grandmother” in Italian. It conjures up the image (in black and white, of course) of an energetic old woman with strong floury arms and an apron, urging a third helping of her lasagna upon the small boy who, many years later, will be serving the same thing to customers in his very own restaurant, far away in New York’s Greenwich Village.

We arrived on a hot night. I had hoped to eat in the garden, but when I stepped out of the cab, it felt less like Greenwich Village than Singapore in monsoon season. The rain was coming down in sheets.

“Horrible weather,” said the maître d’, showing us past the bar to a table in the dining room. “It’s sheltered in the garden, so you can go there for dessert if you want, but I don’t think you’d enjoy it for the whole evening.”

We forgot all about the garden, in fact. The dining room was comfortable and friendly, very much the Italian trattoria with its terra cotta tiles, wood-burning oven, mellow lighting and walls hung with engravings of Tuscan landscapes. There was a spread of antipasti set out at the garden end and the room was quiet enough that we could hear the rain spattering down outside. At a nearby table two young men, second- or third-generation Italian-American, were nervously trying to make conversation with their dates, who looked like characters from Sex and the City . At another table, three elderly couples were celebrating a birthday. La Nonna’s tables are spaced far enough that you can’t hear what your neighbors are saying, and the acoustics are such that, for once, you can actually carry on a conversation without shouting yourself hoarse.

La Nonna’s executive chef is Massimo Felici, executive chef and owner of Ribollita and formerly the chef at Da Vittorio (a restaurant in Chelsea that is nothing if not noisy). His grandmother was from Siena, and I’m sure she would approve whole-heartedly of the food served here in her name. You can start with a simple antipasto, served on a wooden platter, of pink slices of prosciutto, salami, speck and triangles of Tuscan pecorino, or crostini topped with a soft mound of chicken livers. From the wood-burning oven, you can begin with a casserole of radicchio and smoked mozzarella topped with anchovies, with a splash of red wine. Mushrooms are also roasted in this oven and come out crispy, with their flavor deepened and intensified. A special of stuffed red peppers is meaty and satisfying, served with a thick tomato sauce. Slivered artichokes in a lemony dressing are paired with slices of bresaola.

There are long waits between courses at La Nonna, like intermissions at a play. I went to the bathroom, where I discovered the two young women from the next table standing over the bathroom sink, hard at work with the lip pencil and eyeliner.

“The evening’s a disaster,” said the blond one. “After my pepperoni I didn’t know what to talk about.”

“C’mon!” exclaimed the brunette. “Your guy loves you!”

“It’s not working,” the blonde replied, vigorously back-combing her already voluminous hair. “You want to switch?”

“Wherever the night falls, I don’t care.”

“Let’s switch.”

We returned to our respective tables, and one of the men at theirs ordered another bottle of wine.

Our main courses finally arrived. La Nonna’s pastas (which you can get in half orders) are pretty straightforward. They include crêpes with ricotta and spinach, lasagna, spaghetti all’arrabbiata and penne in a slightly dry but pleasant Tuscan meat sauce. Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”) is a Florentine dish of soft dumplings with spinach and Swiss chard mixed with ricotta and parmesan and topped with butter and sauce. Grandmother’s eggplant parmigiana may not exactly be traditional Tuscan food, but I’ve never had better. And if she made trippa alla Fiorentina like this for her grandson–chewy, delicate pieces in a rich, complex sauce made with carrots, celery, onions and white wine sharpened with fresh rosemary and tomato–it’s not surprising that he named a restaurant for her.

Mr. Felici is agreeably whole-hearted about black truffles–no little chopped-up bits for him. His roast pheasant, a special of the day, is stuffed with bread, wild mushrooms, pancetta and herbs, covered with thick slices of black truffle and served on polenta. A juicy rack of veal comes in a white-truffle wine sauce with freshly shaved black truffles on a bed of steamed asparagus.

The wood-burning oven also yields roast rabbit, described by one friend as “pheasant without feathers.” It was overcooked on one occasion, but the second time I ordered it it was perfect–moist and tender in a delicate white wine sauce with polenta. The fish of the day–orata, roasted in the oven–was also cooked perfectly, although the rosemary-flavored roast potatoes that came with it were disappointing.

My favorite dessert is the crespelle, thin pancakes filled with Nutella and mascarpone, far and away superior to the chocolate profiteroles, which were a bit dry and chewy. The panna cotta is subtle and delicate, the cheesecake a smooth mixture of ricotta and mascarpone.

I finally made it to the garden, which was covered by an enormous tent as though set up for a wedding, on the coldest night of the summer. It was just after Labor Day and, when we walked in with my son, it was empty but for two tables. A shout went up from one of them, where a friend was sitting with an expensive cigar in one hand and a copy of American Pastoral in the other. The sight of single diners is always reassuring in a restaurant. They tend to be there for the food.

We invited him to join us. How my friend intended to read a book in this setting I don’t know, since the main source of light in the tent was candles (and very romantic, too). I was only able to read the menu with the aid of my son’s Swiss Army penknife, which has a thin red laser beam. After dinner, when we left our friend to finish his cigar, I felt all he needed was a pair of slippers. La Nonna is that sort of place.

La Nonna

*

133 West 13th Street

741-3663

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Italian, modestly priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses $12 to $22

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday to 10 p.m.

Lounge: Thursday to Saturday 9:30 p.m. To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

A Taste of Tuscan Tradition to Make a Grandmother Proud