Nino's: One True Thing
Art of the Meal
Dark and comforting as a womb, the old-fashioned neighborhood trattoria with incredibly good, authentically Italian food is such an irresistible notion that it's a kind of cinematic stereotype, in everything from The Big Night to "The Sopranos." You need only hear the words "chianti" and "checked tablecloth," and you're off and salivating.
In the restaurant business, such fond nostalgia has turned into a marketing dream. Chains like Maggiano's Little Italy, Fratelli di Napoli and Buca di Beppo all serve up family-style portions of pasta with first-generation ambiance. Countless others turn up the Sinatra, pile on the overcooked fettuccine and call it a day. Alas, many poor diners will never know the difference. Even a mediocre marinara is pretty good if they've never had any other kind, and having found something they like, they want nothing else but exactly the same thing again and again.
Well, don't we all? Consistency is part of Nino's appeal. Owner Antonio Noviello says succinctly, "People don't like change. "After recently celebrating his restaurant's 20th anniversary, he should know. But the difference — and it's a big one — is Nino's rock-solid grasp of its elegantly simple dishes, and the high-quality ingredients used to carry them off.
This isn't Pricci or even Veni Vidi Vici, where your shoes are as important as the veal. At Nino's, an air conditioner juts out of the wall, and one couple tromped in as if dressed for Disney World. The fact that they were treated with the same deference as everyone else is another Nino's signature. The owner (or his brother Giuseppe) roams the small dining room in a smartly tailored suit, the wait staff is uniformed and thoroughly knowledgeable, and the regulars speak softly, as if in a kind of church.
That's understandable too — sometimes the smallest touches can inspire reverence. Take, for example, the bresaola with baby arugula: A little teepee of wash and dried lemon-pepper leaves, with curls of parmesan-reggiano, dribbles of sharp vinaigrette and a fan of thin-sliced, air-dried beef (a bit like proscuitto). Although most of Nino's foodstuffs arrive directly from Italy, a political fight has resulted in a ban of imported bresaola. This domestic version is excellent.
The mild, spiny Caesar salad was our only disappointment — next time, we'd try another appetizer standard, like clams oreganato, instead. But the understated entrees exceed expectations: Veal with cremini and gorgonzola sounds flashy, rich, over-the-top. Instead, the nearly invisible blue cheese camouflages itself within cremini-brown mushroom sauce, supplementing the milk-rich veal, coming off as comforting, quiet, thoroughly satisfying.
And you must, I beg you, have pasta at Nino's. Better still, try two half-portions. Everything is bright and distinct in Cappellini Elena: dewy shrimp, spinach leaves, light cream. But we were hooked, with gills gasping, by the fettuccine with porcini mushrooms. Nothing fancy, except real, fresh porcinis, in all their woodsy glory, al dente pasta, garlic, olive oil and parmesan. In other words, nirvana.
The dessert trolley is daunting and the tiramisu is good, but somehow beside the point. This is really a place to sate yourself with meats and cheeses, and to sip espresso or perhaps a Sambucco. The wine list stretches to nearly 70 labels, mostly Italian, mostly in the $30-$40 range (and including seven chiantis), but only three are offered by the glass ($5).
The incongruous location, on pockmarked Cheshire Bridge Road, adds to a sense of discovery about this place, the closest we've found in Atlanta to a true Little Italy treasure.
The other "concepts" are fine if you're looking for a good copy. If you prefer the real thing, go to Nino's.
Nino's Cucina Italiana
1931 Cheshire Bridge Road NE , Atlanta
404-874-6505 Reservations: Yes.
Hours: 5:30 p.m. - 11 p.m. daily.
Dinner entrees, $14.50-$29.
Credit cards: All major.
Attire: Dressy casual. Just about anything goes, but Tony will be wearing a sharp Italian suit.
Smoking: Permitted on patio and in bar only.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic.