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Nonna: An Off-Brand UWS Olive Garden

Nonna is the type of Italian restaurant you’d expect to find in the suburbs – easy, inexpensive, family-friendly, accessible – and would thoroughly enjoy there with your soccer ball-toting kids, elderly grandma, and price-conscious spouse. Yet, this sort of simple red sauce and meatballs restaurant fails to compete with the plethora of inexpensive casual Italian spots that dot the Manhattan landscape.

The restaurant is picturesque, perched on a hoppin’ corner of Columbus Ave in the ’80s with a sidewalk patio and pleasantly rustic look. On a warm spring night, the patio seems to emit pheremones, drawing in unsuspecting passersby (my Kefi-rejected party included). The inside dining room is hot and crowded with mustard yellow walls, burnt orange touches, dangling lights casting a golden glow over well-dressed UWS families, glinting mirrors, and black-and-white photographs ranging from homey to artsy to just shy of scandalous. An open antipasti station seems to promise fresh and tasty starters to nosh on with your starter bottle of wine.

Unfortunately, despite the charming environment and picture-perfect location, Nonna falls seriously short on the food front – I ask myself, how in the hell did this get a Critics Pick nod on NYMag? The menu is just too ambitious for the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the kitchen. A lamb leg with saffron risotto special entree seems like something special, yet fails to impress with gummy flavorless risotto and tough meat; the smoked mozzarella stuffed ravioli in vodka sauce (and really, the appearance of vodka sauce at all) is just wrong with huge impassable clumps of pungent cheese stuffed into powdery ravioli and showered in unapologetically salty sauce; the antipasti dish was large and in charge with all sorts of marinated vegetables that were often good and often bad – one just ended up wishing for a few slices of meat and cheese to balance the greenery; all other dishes simmered in mediocrity from the baked mussels often not being completely cooked to the pappardelle with mushrooms suspiciously tasting like out-of-a-box Barilla pasta. The few highlights, the fried, cheesy and delightful Arancini (rice balls) and savory Grandma Greco’s Meatballs, showed that when the kitchen stuck with the simple stuff, things went a whole lot smoother.

Nonna has the classic NY problem – looks good, smells good, should be good, and yet isn’t good. While the food is cheap and easy, I’d rather pick up some stir-fry at a local Chinese joint or stand in line at Shake Shack than languish in clumpy pools of vodka sauce.

Perfect For: family gatherings, patio dining, Olive Garden-like indulgences, throwing portion control to the wind, bread, cheese and wine oh my!

Nonna on Urbanspoon

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