When fine dining becomes a memorable and entertaining experience worth savoring and you feel that you aren’t simply a number at a table begging to be turned over to the next reservation, that’s when the bill is worth every penny. When foods you would just as soon avoid become bites you can’t get enough of, that’s a place worth endorsing.
Nonna’s Kitchen became one such spot for me recently. A colleague recommended it to me enthusiastically; it proved to be worth every word of praise. Nonna’s Kitchen is a 22-24 (depending on the source) restaurant above a more casual Italian market and eatery that opened in the fall of 2014. According to my sources, it was started by a partnership that included the former executive chef of Fiola, one of DC’s more coveted, trendy spots. While that chef and partner left the restaurant shortly after its opening, the food, service, and personalized attention to detail made it a must-try.
This restaurant is not for the spontaneous: Reservations are essential and require a credit card ($50 charge for cancellations less than 48 hours in advance). It’s not for the adventurous, yet I was impressed by the restaurant’s concern with food allergies and dislikes. One must choose a tasting menu – a fixed seasonal choice of 4 or 5 course tasting menus (a choice between two options for each course), or a 7 course Chef’s tasting – which is not predetermined. You get what you get. Wine pairings are $50; more for the premium tasting. But for those who enjoy sampling a new wine – one not on every mid-level restaurant in the city – and appreciate pairings – the art of savoring both whites and reds with food, I strongly recommend the pairings. My table chose the 5 course tasting menu, and two of us chose the pairings. Every bite of every course was worth it.
The small, single room restaurant features an open kitchen, which allows its demonstrative sous chef to entertain patrons, particularly those with the mystery 7-course menu. The sleek kitchen and lush, red walls might suggest modernity. The cliched mismatched china, which seems to be the mark of the hot urban chic, and eclectic furnishings look like someone remodeled their nonna’s (grandmother’s) kitchen and dining room. That might be a good way of describing the cuisine: dishes nonna might have made, if nonna then went to culinary school and apprenticed at a New York or DC restaurant…
I prefer to show photos of the exquisite food and wine, rather than do a blow by blow of each course. For those of you that may have trouble displaying the photos on your mobile devices and such, I’ll offer a few restrained descriptors.
Additionally, since the restaurant’s menus are subject to change, I don’t want to build too much hype for individual dishes. What I will say is this: I was overjoyed with Nonna’s versions of a few of my upscale restaurant favorites (raw tuna, foie gras, risotto), but more powerfully, they made me like and want to eat more cod! If you do not know me, you may underestimate that statement. I was turned off to fish after canned tuna and my mother’s monkfish as a child (sorry, Mom). It took another 15-20 years for me to retry fresh tuna, crab, scallops, and mahi-mahi. I still refuse to eat mussels, clams, and most ‘fishy’ fish. Yet this pan-seared cod filet was so un-fishy, with such fresh and tender meat sealed in a salty, crisp crust that I could have eaten it without a single sauce or accompaniment. Never mind that a trio of beans and an English pea broth were outstanding; I could have eaten cod on its own. Wow!
Of the five Italian wines (prosecco; two whites; two reds), the white and red pictured below were the best. The white wine, made by Cistercian nuns in Lazio, was complex and floral, with an almost Sauternes-like late harvest feel but with only the faint whisper of residual sugar. The Copertino red was full bodied, smooth, and not terribly mineral or acidic – my kind of wine. Homemade limoncello was smooth and somewhat light. It wasn’t distinct but tasty, traditional limoncello. It was gone well before I was ready for it to be gone.
Nonna’s Kitchen offers a fine dining experience in DC with few competitors, in my opinion. Though it requires a not insignificant investment, the impeccable execution and showmanship make it a worthwhile indulgence.