Here at EDC we value the experiences in our lives above all else. A value that greatly surpasses money, tangibility, and hoards of worthless possessions. You bought a brand new Lamborghini? Good for you. We spent time with friends and family talking and laughing (sometimes crying), sharing each others’ presence, exploring and making memories we’ll cherish and reminisce about for years to come. Sure, the moments are fleeting, but they were once-in-a-lifetime moments. Priceless.
This past Friday, Justus Frank – former Executive Chef of Fiola – in collaboration with Aaron McGovern and Arturas Vorobjovas – owners of the Russia House Restaurant & Lounge and Biergarten Haus - opened Nonna’s Kitchen directly above the more casual Alphonse Italian Market and Osteria on U Street. A whirlwind two week effort, we couldn’t help but laugh at the confession of paintings being hung opening day, and signage not arriving on time to mark the small doorway that leads one upstairs and into the 22 seat space. Even the admittance of a last-minute change to their business cards was endearing. However, don’t take these little instances of last-minute planning as a sign of poor quality or lack of attention to details. In fact, Nonna’s Kitchen and its team is anything but.
““Our goal with opening Nonna’s Kitchen is provide an experience for diners to enjoy classic old world Italian cuisine, with a modern twist,” says owner Aaron McGovern. “The room is intimate and the large, open kitchen offers the guest to opportunity to watch Chef Justus and his team prepare their food every step of the way, without being intrusive.””
“Nonna”, an Italian term for Grandmother (or as an Urban Dictionary entry says, “An old Italian woman (generally the age of 50+) that is cute and can cook up the most delicious food that you can ever think of.”), and we think Frank must have channeled every Italian grandmother he’s ever come into contact with. Between the small interior only capable of seating 22 people at a time, the tchotchkies decorating the front of the chef’s counter, and a displayed book titled “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”, to the mismatched plates meticulously selected and purchased in sets of 4 off of Ebay, flatware with floral motifs, and the handwritten menu, one feels transported directly into the kitchen of the grandmother we never had. It was in this moment we knew this would be one of our once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This is something special. A moment. A memory.
Of course this memory comes with a slightly heavy price tag. The 5-course regionally and seasonally inspired tasting menu will cost each guest $90. An additional basic wine pairing will run you another $50 or a premium wine pairing for $90. Is it worth it? Absolutely. General Manager Frank Carswell won’t disappoint with his wine pairings, or his abundance of knowledge. We cannot think of a better way to spend 2.5 hours of our time.
Familiar with Fiola’s reputation, we were excited to see what Chef Justus Frank would do when given the chance to spread his wings and run his own kitchen. Not to be preemptive in our observation, but let’s just say with both their opening and Saturday night services booked solid, we can see Frank soaring.
Each month Chef Frank and his team will design a menu based on a region in Italy. For the rest of the month, Tuscany is the region guests can expect to travel vicariously through their food and suggested regional wine pairings.
““My dream has always been to create a dining experience where I can showcase amazing, properly cared for, local ingredients, as well as educate my guests, not only about the food, but the story behind the food.””
We’re thrilled to say we have very little criticism of Nonna’s Kitchen, perhaps the only thing being the bread served with a drizzle of olive oil. Nonna’s bread is baked at high temperatures in the downstairs pizza oven giving it a texture unlike what we’ve experienced so far in DC. A beautiful thin crispy crust on the outside, and the bread’s interior nearly doughy yet fully cooked – it was so good we wanted to sop up all of the brothy and saucy goodness that accompanied several of the dishes. We figure, if one is going to pay $90 for the tasting menu it’d be such a shame to let any of it go to waste, and we’d look quite silly spooning it like a soup or slurping it like poorly mannered orphans. So please sir, we want some more bread. (We’d have happily paid an additional fee for a basket of it.)
So, let’s begin our journey (we hope we haven’t lost your interest yet):
Chef Frank surprised us with two delicious amuse bouche’s starting with Eel Escabeche with a Brodo poured table side (this was the first time we knew more bread was a necessity for our meal), followed by Crostini of White Proscuitto with fig mostarda. Our wine pairings began with the Clara C Rose Prosecco and a special treat of Ca’del Bosco Cuvée Prestige – a wine crafted from the finest of hand-selected Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco grapes from 134 vineyards . You know how they say when a boy likes a girl, he’ll tease her? This was the beginning of our crush.
The first course offers a choice of Carpaccio di Palombo (Maine swordfish, zolfino beans, wild fennel, eggplant, radish) or Brodo con Tagliolini (porcini mushrooms, celery root, veal sweetbreads, basil). And while the Maine swordfish was incredible on its own, it was the tagliolini that won the round. The last time we saw sweetbreads as part of a menu was at Boundary Road with a completely different preparation. Knowing that sweetbreads can have an earthy straight-from-the-pasture flavor, we noticed Justus’ brodo masked that sometimes undesirable flavor while allowing one to savor the texture of the meat. With the spaghetti-like egg noodles and sweetbreads devoured, and a second bowl of broth in front of us, we of course asked for more bread. (This is when they started catching onto our bread fetish.) Accompanying this course was a pouring of Poggio al Tesoro Solosole.
Round – er…course – number two resulted in nearly a tie with the Cacciucco alla Livornese (monkfish, prawn, mullet, octopus, periwinkles, cockles, Maine lobster) and the Scallopini alla Abetonese (pan-seared veal, savoy spinach, kabocha squash, apollini onions). While we loved the smoky flavor of the veal and all of its plant-based accoutrements, we’re seafood lovers by nature and basically needed scuba gear for the livornese. We didn’t want to come up for air. (This time they didn’t even bother with the olive oil on the bread. They knew exactly why we wanted it.) The second course was accompanied by a pairing of Castiglion Del Bosco Cdbianco and the Collezione Privata Chardonnay.
The third course is where things start getting real. Progressing from lighter to heavier food options, the third course offered a choice of Pappardelle al Ragu di Cinghiale (wild boar ragu, burgundy black truffle, pecorino di fossa, oregano) and Tortellini con Coda di Bue (braised oxtail, roasted cauliflower, hazelnuts, Parmigiano Bonati). One thing we adored about this course is the uniqueness of ingredients. Just like the sweetbreads, we don’t run into wild boar or braised oxtail all that often. The ragu was hearty and rich, while the tortellini a little lighter. What we loved the most? The joining of cauliflower, hazelnuts and cheese with the pasta. For this course it’s OK to be “those” people that don’t allow their dinner date to order the same thing they did. You’ll want to share… or not.
Rounding out the savory dishes in the fourth course were the choices of Agnello al Testo (roasted Shenandoah lamb, foie gras confit, black kale, braised farro) and Fagiano Arrostito con Uvas (Scottish pheasant, Taggiasche olives, guanciale, saba). Between the two, there’s no contest. It will come down to personal preference. We will always choose lamb. A hearty dish, we couldn’t help but fall in love with the additional textures of the farro and kale. But then there was that guanciale with the pheasant. Really, our hearts and stomachs were torn. The pairings for both the third and fourth course included the merlot blend of Tolaini Al Passo and the Super Tuscan La Mailina Gertrude Rosso.
By now, if you read EDC regularly, it should be widely known that dessert is our favorite. However, we weren’t quite sure how one could cap off such a decadent meal without the final course becoming overshadowed. We shouldn’t have worried. Nonna’s final course, dessert, was Zuccoto (vanilla semifreddo, amaretto spongecake, Valrhona chocolato) paired with Col dei Venti Brachetto dessert wine. We loved the additional yet unexpected treats that also found their way from the kitchen to our table including a Pomegranate Sorbetto with mint, and what we think were cinnamon and fig macaroons (but we might be wrong on that one. Forgive us. A lot of wine was had.)
We’re still thinking about our time spent at Nonna’s Kitchen and every chance we get we’re telling our local friends and family about our experience. Nonna’s elevates U Street’s culinary choices based on our past observations, and has provided the perfect spot for any special occasion. With the ability to seat a total of 22 people at once up to twice a night, we suggest making reservations now. And, now through November 25th, retweet THIS and receive 20% off. Never ones to rush the seasons, we’re admittedly anticipating December and Justus Frank’s newest menu creation.
1212 U St NW
Washington, DC 20009
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