MARKET WATCH: Marcie Turney and Sara May soaking up some inspiration at Claudio’s.
With vintage tableware, tea candles in votives and tumblers for Chianti, the decor of Little Nonna’s (set to debut at the end of the month at 1234 Locust Street) conjures up the coziness of a visit to Grandma’s South Philly rowhouse for Sunday supper. The back garden even has a clothesline strung with the eponymous Nonna’s aprons, lace and linens — despite the fact that for restaurateurs Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, “Nonna” is an idea rather than an actual person.
Neither woman in the duo behind Barbuzzo, Jam-onera and other Gayborhood spots actually grew up with a gravy-stirring grandma. “I grew up eating Spam,” laughs Turney about her childhood in the Poconos. “My parents had about 10 different ways to prepare it.”
So why Italian-American? The idea came to (candle-) light as Turney and Safran dined at Mr. Martino’s, an East Passyunk trattoria with a cult following. In a city where places like Mr. Martino’s still have loyal followings, it seemed a new-school-meets-old-school Italian-American spot could make a lot of sense.
“We wanted to bring back that Italian-American restaurant of the ’50s, and do it with quality ingredients and respect for tradition,” says Turney. Note she said “Italian-American” — the difference between “Italian-American restaurant” and “Italian restaurant in America” is much more than just semantics, she says.
These days, “Italian-American” can evoke fast-food bastardizations of old-country traditions: dry chicken cutlets or sub-par Italian hoagies. But Nonna’s embraces the cuisine’s deeper roots, says Turney. “It came from the Italian immigrants of South Philly and lower Manhattan. These folks took their traditions and created these red-sauce recipes with inexpensive cuts of meat, tomatoes, mozzarella and pasta that were affordable and comforting.”
The opening menu does expand a bit on tradition. Take spaghetti and meatballs — tiny polpettini might appear in Puglia, but not soft-ball-sized meatballs atop a pile of red-sauced pasta. While the aim is for grandma-style comfort, Turney and Safran have enlisted some serious young talent. Sara May, whose dessert stylings have spruced up Franklin Fountain, came to Little Nonna’s via a fortuitous Craiglist ad. “You can’t get good spumoni anywhere in Philadelphia,” says May of the tri-colored ice cream. Her mission: to take the good-looking but not the best-tasting bakery staples and make them into more than just eye candy.
The wine list will be all-Italian, though Turney says there won’t be any straw-wrapped bottles of Chianti on view. Blue Blazer, a firm of Village Whiskey and Lemon Hill vets, is designing an Italian-accented cocktail program with mason-jar Negronis. When it’s nice out, you’ll be able to sip them out in the back garden, underneath the stars and Nonna’s aprons.
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