Traditional Italian/Italian-American is a style of restaurant few appear interested in opening in Madison. What new kitchen has dared to trot out your grandfather's Bologneses and Parmigianas and Alfredos? If you speak Italian, you know nonno is the word for grandfather, and there's your answer.
Nonno's Ristorante Italiano -- an old-school name if ever there was one -- launched in the waning weeks of 2013 in the former Cancun on the corner of Whitney Way and Odana Road. Unusually for this market, the owners of Nonno's are the very same people who owned and operated Cancun.
This is a move you see from star-power chefs in larger markets, who can afford to temporarily shutter a restaurant for revamping. (The Nonno's transformation took place during the overnight off-hours.) Switching from Mexican to Italian with the same crew is also a fairly significant shift. Can taco-salad experience translate into grilled-polenta skills?
Nonno's is making the case that yes, it does. The owners shelled out to participate in Restaurant Week, a bold move for a menu less than two months old. And the staff is treating its customers like patrons in the style of the Italian Renaissance, warmly and gratefully.
Italian cuisine is perfect in this era of small plates and shareable dishes. Okay, long noodles can be hard to portion out, but order the adorably named risi e bisi if you're looking for something hearty enough to be shared and still satisfy.
Risi e bisi is a Venetian dish centered on arborio rice (the rice typically used to make risotto) and fresh peas. In fact, the name means "rice and peas," so there's little else that's essential. Nonno's makes the customary addition of diced prosciutto cotto, and the dish is topped with shaved Parmesan and a little Alfredo sauce. The result is a creamy, rich casserole, the saltiness of the ham offset by little bursts of sweet pea flavor.
I enjoyed the bistecca a piacere, which means "steak as you like it." This is Nonno's way of indicating that you can chose either a red wine peppercorn sauce or a porcini mushroom sauce. The latter was recommended, and though it was a touch salty, the rib eye was cooked to medium as requested, and trimmed well.
Main courses are the way to go at Nonno's. They were universally more pleasant than the other options of soup, salad, pizza or, at lunch only, sandwich. A cup of minestrone soup came out thin and bland, while the Nonno's salad struggled under too much Italian dressing. The shrimp atop that salad were cooked and seasoned well, but tail-on shrimp in a salad is, if not a weird decision, then at least a messy one.
Pizzas are thin crust, but using a dough very similar to the (tasty) complimentary focaccia results in an outer ring of crust that just isn't quite dense enough. The pizza alla Siciliana is topped with mozzarella, pecorino, capers, grilled eggplant and kalamata olives; what I tasted was salt, and almost no tomato sauce to balance it out. Truth be told, I don't know if the crust could have handled more moisture.
Prosciutto is listed in all-caps under the caprese e prosciutto panino, and with reason: There's a ton of it, but the press didn't warm mine to the middle, resulting in a nigh-impenetrable layer of cured meat. Lunch portions of pasta are probably the better choice.
The farfalle Piemontese is a nice light plate, with chunks of a flavorful house-made sausage, sun-dried tomato, broccoli and a white wine sauce just sufficient to cover each noodle. It almost felt like a stir-fry dish, but that could have been the broccoli playing tricks on me.
A few words on Nonno's Restaurant Week performance. Some dishes, thankfully, were tweaks on the standard menu, and the grilled salmon was a beautiful piece of fish. (Nonno's places small seafood orders three times a week, we were told.) Fried calamari and octopus were tender and just a little spicy, and the tiramisu was creamy and soft, hitting the target.
Big portions, good depth of flavor: as far as pastas and mains go, impressive stuff from a young kitchen, or an old kitchen learning new tricks.