While the rise of complex culinary techniques can make for a lovely night out, and a very entertaining dinner, it’s nice to know that there are still some chefs kicking it old-school, like those at Nonni’s Italian Kitchen and Pasta Shop. Located in Tiverton, Nonni’s specializes in freshly made pastas and sauces, but they have an extensive menu that features all of the classic Italian-American favorites. Having grown up in an Italian neighborhood in Boston, owner Phil DeDucca cherishes the family-oriented spirit of Italian-American cuisine, and it shows through in his grandmother’s recipes.
From the outside, Nonni’s has a charming look, featuring a small sign above the entrance. When you walk in, you’re in the pasta shop, where you can buy both fresh and dry pastas, made in house, as well as various sauces and other Italian staples. We visited on a late Sunday afternoon, so it was fairly empty, and we were seated as soon as we walked in the door. Throughout our meal, our server was polite and attentive, and made us feel right at home. The décor was interesting, with pictures hung in seemingly random locations along the walls, giving the dining room a rustic, homey feel to match the food. They have a full bar with cocktails and an extensive wine list. The beer list was a little lackluster, with almost no craft brews or micro-brews, but Nonni’s is not really focused on beer, and their extensive wine list certainly makes up for that. With my dinner, I had a Natura Savignon Blanc, which is a bright, citrusy white wine from Chile, made with organically grown grapes.
To start, we ordered the risotto balls, which were stuffed with goat cheese and spinach, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Although traditional Sicilian arancini are usually stuffed with meat sauce or mozzarella, I loved the stuffing in these, and the risotto, which can often overcook while the arancini fry, came out perfectly cooked and retained some texture. We also had the stuffed shells, made with Nonni’s fresh pasta dough. The dough had a great soft-but not-mush texture that I love in fresh pasta, and the marinara sauce was seasoned well.
As per recommendation of our waitress, I decided to try one of the weekly specials, butternut squash ravioli tossed in butter and sage with sautéed apples for my entrée. My companions had the house gnocchi in pink vodka sauce and the baked cod with Italian breadcrumbs. By this point, some of the other tables were starting to fill, and it became pretty apparent that Nonni’s probably gets pretty busy on more popular nights such as Friday or Saturday. It didn’t take long for our food to arrive, and in true Italian-American style, the portions were generous, although not overly ambitious.
Once again, the texture of the pasta dough in the ravioli was spot on, which is something that any self respecting Italian like myself will love. The squash filling was delicious, although somewhat scarce, and the sautéed apples were cooked just enough to be warm and comforting, but not enough to be soft or mushy, so they added great flavor, as well as a nice crunch to the dish. The only complaint I had about this dish was that the ravioli were tossed in unsalted butter, and I couldn’t taste that any salt had been added, which would have been a great contrast to the sweetness of the apples. Fresh pasta dough needs some salt to bring out the natural flavors, but for the most part it was delicious and well thought out.
The gnocchi were also perfectly textured, and not overly doughy like gnocchi can so often be. Given the traditional textures and flavors in all of the food here, it’s obvious that the recipes used at Nonni’s are family heirlooms, passed through generations, without being altered or changed much at all. One of our favorite things about our meal were the fries that we ordered with the baked cod. Apart from being monstrously large, they were obviously hand-cut. Usually, fries this large tend to be very bland and under-seasoned, because there is so much potato inside, and seasoning can only be sprinkled on the surface. Surprisingly, however, these fries were very flavorful all the way through without being overly salty on the surface.
We finished our meal with the tiramisu, a classic Italian dessert made with lady fingers, layered with a whipped mascarpone mixture, and often flavored with chocolate, coffee and rum. The chocolate in this tiramisu was dark and rich, and it was soaked in a strong alcohol, which if you like alcohol is wonderful, and if you don’t, can be overbearing. It’s a good thing we do.
While Nonni’s certainly isn’t leading the world of food in innovation or reinventing any techniques, they are keeping one of America’s greatest culinary traditions alive in Tiverton. If you grew up in an Italian-American family, bound together by the tradition of Sunday dinners, centered around delicious home-cooked meals, then you understand how vital it is to have people like those at Nonni’s keeping that culture alive. 1154 Stafford Road, Tiverton. 401-624-3087.