Nonna translated from Italian means "Grandmother", and Nonna's Chicago Bistro of Denver looks and feels a lot like your Grandmother's idea of the ideal restaurant. There is parking right up front thanks to the out-of-the way strip mall location on Leetsdale and Monaco. The walls are painted in a familiar cracked-villa-stucco-overgrown-with-leafy-vines and two-dimensional-bright-purple-grapes kind-of-way. Faux brick thoughtfully lines the underside of the bar where mostly middle-aged and older well-dressed patrons are comfortably chatting and sipping wine. Plastic plants requiring no care yet almost as real-as-life adorn many-a-mantle. The booths are deep with slick brown vinyl. The table tops are collages of old wine labels with a touch of some sort of marbled gold inlay.
I was there for the first time over a month ago with my parents who were visiting from their home in Chicago. Bringing my parents to Nonna's Chicago Bistro is a little like bringing my Mexican in-laws to eat Mexican food in Denver (stay tuned, I just did that), but my parents are not adverse to familiarity, so it seemed like a good fit. On this Saturday night Nonna's was nothing short of packed; and the dimly lit interior, the glasses clinking, the laughter and bright conversation made it feel like the place to be that night (if you were over 50 and lived in Southeast Denver). A quartet of well-dressed gentlemen was setting up instruments. By the time we sat down they were breaking into their first number, the familiar feel of this Chicago-style spot got even more nostalgic as a Tony Bennett clone belted out swanky classics backed by a polished, crisp jazz trio.
Our menus came amidst a spattering of light applause and I was disappointed to see that dinner doesn't include the Italian beef. I remember having a decent one from Nonna's at the Italian festival in Belmar Plaza a couple years back, but I had to return for lunch in order to get one this time around (see the end of the post).
My mom tried the classic spaghetti and meatballs. Her favorite. The two meatballs were moist, tender and packed with homemade flavor. The sauce had a little arrabiata kick to it and tasted very fresh. This dish has garnered awards for being among Denver's best, and while I don't often go around seeking out balls of meat (I should) to verify the top-of-the-town rating, they were indeed quite good.
My dad ordered his favorite as well-- eggplant parmesan. His dish too tasted fresh and was classically prepared in the Italian-American grandmotherly tradition. It was, like the meatballs: a big, heaping plate of comfort.
My wife and I split a large order of Chicago-style ribs. Now many people don't know that Chicago has its own style of rib-cooking, but it does. Mostly it means slow cooking without smoking and then covering them with a simple tangy barbecue sauce. These ribs at Nonna's were indeed fall-off-the-bone-tender and each bite melted in my mouth (grandma's like this too, for obvious reasons). The sauce was nothing spectacular but it was good enough being that these ribs were so tender and juicy. In the photo below try and ignore the overcooked, charred and chewy vegetables next to the ribs-- they were barely edible.
My wife's favorite dish was our calamari appetizer. It was well-fried calamari (not chewy, not oily) tossed with all the other ingredients that would otherwise might make up some sort of Greek salad: olives, feta, capers and tomatoes. It also had deep-fried artichokes. It is a unique concept and I propose every restaurant rethink a salad from its menu by replacing the lettuce with some sort of fried meat. Seriously.
I did get back for lunch a few weeks later in order to try the beef. It was a little strange sitting down to eat a beef with my drink served in a glass and a cloth napkin on my lap, but such are the circumstances that us beef-cravers must endure to find a good Chicago-style sammich in Denver. The giardiniera peppers were served on the side, and the bun was a slice of Italian-style bread sprinkled with parsley and parmesan. I dumped on the peppers and devoured my sandwich without putting it down or once touching a utensil. It was moist, flavorful and much better than the last beef I had in Denver.
I liked it here. It's hard not to like a place that brings together people around food and drink like Nonna's does, and even never having met Nonna, I imagine that is exactly what she had in mind. Never mind that it would not be my first choice for a night out on the town with my wife, but for nights like this with my parents in tow it was perfect. My parents agreed that it did indeed remind them of the old family-style Italian-American restaurants that dot Chicago's suburban landscape (there are very few strip malls in the city). And the food was good. Nothing that will blow your socks off, but it had the feeling of consistency and comfort that obviously pleases enough people to fill the tables every weekend.
It was more than the food; it was again, the whole vibe: The live band swinging, the excellent service and the smiling patrons-- mostly all tipsy on wine-- having a great time. Visit them on the world wide web, or in person for some juicy ribs, a big beef sandwich and some middle-aged Chicago-style fun.
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