Michael Klein: 1950s-style Italian ristorante opens on Locust

Little Nonna's, 1234 Locust St.

They've tackled Mexican, Mediterranean, Spanish, and (for several years) Indian cuisine on one block on 13th Street in Washington Square West.

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran head south a bit for Italian cooking. What briefly was Fish till earlier this year will become Little Nonna's (1234 Locust St., 215-546-2100). Inspired by Little Italy red-gravy houses, it's set up as a ristorante circa 1950, with such kitsch as mismatched chairs and hanging copper pots. Faux flowers will keep the florist's bills down, for sure.

Dishes - mainly standards with tweaking, e.g. meatballs, hand-stretched mozzarella, stuffed artichokes - are priced from $14 to $24. The all-Italian wine list will be backed by a cocktail menu that will include a Negroni served in a mason jar with a single block of ice. It's dinner only from the start. (Dinner menu is here.)

Monday-to-Saturday lunch has begun. (Menu is here.)

Meanwhile, Lolita - their Mexican cantina at 106 S. 13th St. - is closed for a renovation that will yield a bar when it reopens in November. Till then, Barbuzzo and Jamonera are open. The couple has not announced what will become of the corner of 13th and Locust Streets, which they acquired in the deal to set up Little Nonna's.

Bumper crop. Early September will see a rash of high-profile openings. Besides Little Nonna's, there is Peppercorn (replacing georges' in Wayne; Sept. 3), Pizzeria Vetri (1939 Callowhill St.; Sept. 6), Ocean Prime (15th and Sansom Streets; Sept. 9), and Carmel Cafe (372 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne; Sept. 9).

Elmi arrives. Nicholas Elmi, who dropped off the radar several months ago when he left Rittenhouse Tavern at the Art Alliance, has made two huge moves. One is his appearance on next season's Top Chef, which premieres Oct. 2 on Bravo. Two is the deal he just inked: He's opening a BYOB on the burgeoning East Passyunk strip, home of such hot spots as Fond, Will, Le Virtu, Noord, Stateside, Izumi, and Paradiso. Elmi is taking 1617 E. Passyunk Ave., which was Fond before it moved around the corner into a larger space. He's calling it Laurel, after the state flower -"and it's one of my favorite ingredients," he said. Menu will be classic and contemporary French, with entrées under $30. "We certainly don't want to call it fine dining," said Elmi, who did a ton of that when he was chef at Le Bec-Fin. "A bunch of chefs today are redefining what fine dining is now. What it boils down to is who's going to put the best food out there and connect with our customers the best?" The space, which Fond is still leasing, is pretty much turnkey. Elmi said he would change the furniture, paint and lighting, keeping it minimalist. He said he would remove about 10 seats from the 36-seat dining room. Still, because of his heavy traveling schedule, he plans to hold off the opening till Nov. 5.

What's nuevo. With a name like Shifty's, it has to be good. Right? That's the thinking behind Shifty's Taco (2730 W. Girard Ave., 215-232-1413). "I know the word shifty has negative connotations," says co-owner Jeb Woody. "I think little things like that are conversation starters." Befitting the neighborhood - above Fairmount and east of the Philadelphia Zoo - Shifty's is a rough-and-tumble-looking 1950s-style Mexican cantina with exposed walls, butcher-block counter, and open kitchen framed in wood.

Zack Shell (who formerly managed the El Fuego restaurants) and Geoff Gabrick (a chef previously at Circa, Novelty, and Latest Dish) make their own tortillas and hot sauces, butcher their own meats, and locally source as many ingredients as they can. "We have high expectations for ourselves," says Jeb Woody, who also co-owns the Honey's Sit N Eat bruncheries. "We want to make the best tacos in the country." Flour and gluten-free corn tortillas envelop the tacos, sold three per order. Prices start at $5 for bean and cheese and rise to $8 for such varieties as "The Rub" (braised brisket with chipotles in adobo) and "The Impostor" (house-made pulled seitan, pomegranate molasses, and chipotle mole). For now, it's dinnertime only; lunch is on the way.

Changing forks. The bar is rising for market/restaurants: Take the new, ambitious Talula's Daily on Washington Square and Du Jour Market at Commerce Square's plan to add a liquor license. Josh Lawler at the Farm & Fisherman in Center City is developing a market/restaurant in Cherry Hill, and chef Chad Williams, a Garces alumnus, is planning Fairmount Grocery in Francisville. And in mid-September, fork:etc., Ellen Yin, Roberto Sella and chef Eli Kulp's market-cafe next to the Old City bistro Fork, will become the higher-minded, though still casual, High Street on Market (308 Market St.) as an "of-the-moment restaurant" serving "boundary-pushing" food from morning to evening. Kulp's menu will constantly change and will feature difficult-to-find, foraged ingredients. He also plans to use Old World preservation techniques. High Street on Market will add table seating while retaining counter service for mornings (savory and sweet pastries and breakfast sandwiches accompanied by Rival Bros Coffee made in a new La Marzocco coffee machine) and afternoons (sandwiches, salads, pastas, plus house-made breads using locally milled flour and grains). At dinnertime, the room will become more like a full-service restaurant; complementing the dishes will be drinks using house-made shrubs and infused liquors.

In brief. Sylva Senat, the initial co-chef at Tashan, the modern Indian destination on South Broad Street, has landed as chef at the Saint James, the stylish (but critically panned) American bistro at Suburban Square.

Clark Gilbert has opened a 25-seat second-story deck at Bisou in Manayunk. It features fresh-looking lime-colored umbrellas that shade the tables, magnolia trees, and a vertical garden.


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.