Little Nonna's was barely three nights old when chef and co-owner Marcie Turney - her kitchen crew already digging deep into their "gravy pot" - realized just how deceptive her challenge was.
The adorable little storefront space, trimmed with an old-time striped awning and lace curtains, certainly looks manageable enough, the open kitchen in the rear facing a 40-seat room flanked by red vinyl booths and an attic's worth of copper Jell-O molds, mismatched frames, and other grandma kitsch. But with the mid-fall weather still mild, essentially doubling Little Nonna's seating with the light-strung patio hideway out back, the guests just kept pouring in.
By night's end, with 193 meals served, Turney turned to one of her best sous-chefs, Caleb Johnson, who'd been "in the weeds" all night, and said: "Son, you just got whipped by a meatball."
Dishing out meatballs should be easy, right?
It's not as easy as it sounds to get it right. And Little Nonna's meatball moment was instructive in so many ways.
For one, the fact that many people would flock from week one to a new restaurant built as a throwback concept is a testament to the following that Turney and her partner, Valerie Safran, have built over the last decade while pioneering the 13th Street renaissance with hits like Lolita and Barbuzzo.
Their knack for capturing a magnetic brand of casual style is very much in play here, the annexlike space behind the former Fish done up with mismatched plates, a romantic glow, and cymbal-crashing '50s swing tunes to pair with house-bottled Negroni cocktails and a menu that takes its marinara cues from Little Italy nostalgia. Stuff those meatball centers with a signature Turney surprise of oozy, molten fontina. Serve them alongside a pile of spaghetti teased up as high as a beehive hair-do, and the cash register will undoubtedly be singing "That's Amore!"
Philadelphians clearly hunger for a thoughtful update to their own South Philly tradition. It still lives in the scrippelle soup and slow-cooked braciole at Mr. Joe's Cafe. The fried "asparagrass" in garlicky scampi butter is still irresistible at Villa di Roma, the unvarnished Italian Market relic. The meat-studded gravy that glosses breaded planks of veal Parm at 113-year-old Ralph's still has its ancient allure - even if the midday room is dark as a coffin, and the shabbily washed glasses show what looks like a century's worth of lip marks.
Yes, South Philly's Italian torchbearers are still simmering, but they are also undoubtedly tired. So news that Vale-Mar were about to conjure their own fresh take was cause for groupies to wait with budino-baited breath for their own Big Night.
I was concerned. Nostalgic odes to Italian-American cooking have too easily devolved into garlic-bombed Buca di Beppo cartoons. Set against the backdrop of a modern Italian restaurant scene that's hit new heights in the post-gravy Vetri era, it has to be cast with just the right tone, winking at tradition while improving it on the same plate. And neither Turney nor Safran come to these flavors by birthright.
The notion that this particular genre, from garlic bread to Sunday gravy, is just as "American" as it is "Italian" only complicates matters. The duo's previous explorations of Mexican and Spanish cuisines benefited from the slack of their audience's unfamiliarity.
But every Italian friend I know thinks their mama's red gravy is the best. I doubt anyone will think Little Nonna's red sauce hits that mark, in part because it tastes too much like bacon, or misses a touch of sweetness, or whatever that elusive spirit is that comes from a worn wooden spoon passed down from one generation to the next. Why does the linguine vongole taste more like butter than it does the briny essence of clams? And who actually enjoyed sawing through the giant stuffed shell? Its ricotta-and-braised-meat center was mushy, and the indelicate, shell-shaped pasta bowl evoked, in size and thickness, a football.
I actually love Little Nonna's meatballs, especially as an app over a creamy puddle of polenta. But I don't think a meatball stuffed with cheese is necessarily better than the simpler comfort of a soft Marabella Meatball Co. beauty. More isn't always better in a meatball.
What Little Nonna's makes is something different, as personal as their take on Indian food at the now-closed Bindi. After all, I highly doubt the old Palumbo's crowd was nibbling lamb ribs glazed with a deconstructed Negroni (Campari, Cinzano, orange juice and herbs) - even if those Border Spring chops were sublimely meaty and tender.
But there's more than enough here like those ribs - built on quality ingredients, seasonality, and instinctive good cooking - to anchor a lovely evening, especially in a space that exudes a genuine warmth and intimacy.
Some of the old-school dishes Turney got right. The garlic bread is addictive, with a bonus of tawny roasted garlic to smear. And her mussels red may be the best in town, the tender mollusks plump and clean in broth rich with fennel, pepperoni, and Calabrian chile spice. The Italian wedding soup riff is fantastic, with tiny chicken meatballs propping up a cracker of roasted chicken skin. The pasta e fagioli would have been a winner, too, had it not been oversalted. A zesty roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone for lunch can hang with 9th Street's best. The appetizer of fresh-pulled mozzarella was good enough, but it didn't need the extra pepperoni on top.
There were a handful of pasta successes - whole-wheat ziti in parsnip cream and brussels sprout leaves; a simple fusilli with Pecorino, exotic mushrooms and artichokes; a gnocchi in brown butter with wine-steeped prunes and shaved gorgonzola. But just as many of them were problematic. The chestnut-squash ravioli were overwhelmed by a thick duck ragu. The squid ink cavatelli were squishy. The wide-tube paccheri with the Sunday gravy (including less-than-tender braciole) had collapsed like blown-out tires.
Nonna's entrees, though, were generally a delight, from the moist swordfish steaks in lemony Sicilian bread crumbs with golden raisins to a juicy veal porterhouse with mushrooms, prosciutto, and Marsala. Brick-pressed lemon chicken with a variety of roast sweet potatoes would have been perfect if it hadn't been so buttery.
By dessert, Turney has settled into a solid groove, wrapping apples into crostata pastry that flakes with 30-day-old Pecorino, plopping tart scoops of blood orange-basil water ice into cups of vodka and prosecco for a slurpable Sgroppino. Her Italiano-style milk and cookies has bake-sale charm, the cherry-dabbed chocolate thumbprints echoed in a frothy, extra-rich chocolate egg cream.
Her biggest challenge, though, was the cannoli. It's iconic as a meatball, and even harder to master. But Turney found the secret to a bubbly shell (vinegar!), then gave it her twist with creamy hazelnut-ricotta filling and chocolate nibs edging the crust. It's a creamy-crunchy image of Little Nonna's at its best, crafting a tasty tradition of its own.
Owners Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney discuss Little Nonna's at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Craig LaBan will resume his online chats on Dec. 3 at 2p.m. at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Pizzeria Vetri.