4417 Murphy Rd. 463-0133 Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Wed.; 5-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.
Almost 10 years ago, my closest friend in Nashville moved to New York City. The day after she left, I drove over to the little cottage she’d lived in, sat in a chair beside the garden, and cried my eyes out for more than an hour. Still, she desperately needed the change, and I had encouraged her to go.
These days, she is no longer so enamored of the city and is plotting her escape. Whenever we get together, talk inevitably turns to how to get her back to Nashville, yet still do the work she loves to do. A restaurant, we say, would be the perfect thing.
It would be in an urban neighborhood. The Belmont area, or 12 South, or maybe Sylvan Park. It would be quite small, no more than 50 seats. Cozy and cheerful, with sunny colors and old furniture, lots of windows to offer a streetscape, and windowboxes for herbs. There would be fresh flowers and interesting art. There would be a small barwith a handsome bartender, of courseand a kitchen within view of diners.
The wine list would be short, but select and moderately priced. Most important, the menu would be small, manageable, and fresh, adhering to the principal of “from the earth to the table.” We probably wouldn’t even print a menumaybe we’d just chalk up the day’s repast on a big blackboard. Everything that came to the tablefrom the bread to the coffeewould be of the best quality.
The first time I walked into Caffe Nonna, nestled in a bustling little corner of the Sylvan Park neighborhood, I thought to myself, “My God! It’s our restaurant!” Small and cozy, with about 40 seats including the stools at the little bar, Caffe Nonna is painted a cheery yellow with a green ceiling and red and black accents. Colorful oil paintings are hung on the walls, vases of sunflowers are scattered about. Two big paned windows look out onto busy Murphy Road. Banquettes hug the other two walls.
The room is very loud and very lively. Candles on the tables cast a warm glow on diners’ faces, and attractive servers in black pants and white shirts weave in and out among the tables, carrying big, heavy plates and bowls of food. The handsome bartenders are, in fact, partners Jeff Bloom and Fred Grgich. Through a rectangular open window at back, you can see into the tiny kitchen, where the third partner, chef Daniel Maggipinto, is hard at work.
Our dinner party chose a red and a white from the short wine list; the server brought a basket of bread and...uh-oh. As the first food that comes to the table, bread sets the tone for the meal. Put a basket of bad bread in front of me, and I turn cranky. There is simply no excuse for it anymore, with local purveyors like Bread & Company and Provence. Insult compounded injury when we spied, strewn atop the offending loaf, foil-wrapped butter packets. Eeew.
After making a round of the table, the bread went back to the kitchen, untouched. Fortunately, by the time we returned for lunch a week later, a bread transformation had already taken place; warm and crusty, it came to the table with a plate of olive oil, cracked pepper, and parmesan.
The haste with which Caffe Nonna corrected this small but crucial problem bodes well for this promising and eminently likable restaurant. So while I’m at it, and while we are all still speaking, I have three more, very important words for Caffe Nonna: less is more.
It’s the menu, you big lugs. At dinner, Caffe Nonna offers four appetizers, four salads, six pizzas, 11 entrees, and a section called mix-and-match pastafour different pastas that can be teamed with your choice of four different sauces. With a kitchen smaller than many homes boast, a bare-bones cooking staff (there’s no room for any more), and 40 seats, it is absolutely impossible to execute a menu of that size with any degree of consistency.
Was it any wonder that the calamari appetizertouted as crispy friedwas rubbery, cold, and greasy? Should we have been surprised that the salad greens had not been thoroughly dried, allowing the dressing to slip right off onto the plate? We scooped up the yummy topping on the Tuscan bruschetta but left the icky, soggy bread on the plate. The toppings on the calabrese pizza were also excellent, but the crust had crisped too long.
Entrees fared better in the execution, though we were perplexed at some of the selections. Lamb shank, one of Maggipinto’s specialities, should not make an appearance until the weather cools considerablylikewise, the pork chops with hot and sweet peppers. There are three chicken entrees, two too many. The lasagna is of the cheesy, meaty variety, great comfort food in January, too heavy for late summer.
Speaking of the seasons, we were also puzzled by one ingredient that was missing in actionfresh tomatoes. In one form or another, they should have been on nearly every single plate. Hello? Has anyone been to the Farmers Market lately? Hmm, guess not. Danielwho cooks at lunch and dinnerprobably hasn’t been out of the kitchen in weeks.
Lunch, by the way, was superb and showed what Caffe Nonna is capable of when the menu is pared down and there aren’t 40 people ordering 40 different things all at once.
Here’s my advice: Get rid of the menus, though the covers are awfully cute. Get a blackboard, get some chalk, and start writing: Two appetizers. Two salads (save the faboo Riviera for lunch only, along with the mix-and-match pastas and panino sandwiches). One plain pizza and one pizza of the day. Six entrees, including three or four pastas, depending on what’s fresh, available, and seasonal. Keep the three excellent desserts. Let Daniel do what he does best and don’t beat him to death with his own sauté pan.
That’s it. Badabing. Badaboom.
Of course, if it were that easy, everybodyincluding my friend and Iwould do it. It’s very, very hard to open a restaurant. But why make it harder?
When my friend next visits, the first place I’ll take her is Caffe Nonna, where she can get a picture of what’s possible in Nashville these days. By then, I have high hopes Caffe Nonna will have gotten the big picture too.