Each year, Nonna takes home the silver medal when critics hand gold to a similar restaurant, Lucia, in the pasta Olympics. Indeed, while Lucia is on every list of the city’s best restaurants, Nonna often gets snubbed.
And to get more literal about that aura of secrecy: For a strip-mall restaurant, Nonna is weirdly hard to find. The signless front door is underneath a sign for the ownership’s catering business. At the peak of dinner service, every window is covered in discreet dark brown shades to prevent prying eyes from seeing which local celebrities are dining in a slightly too dark room. It’s common for older visitors to flash cellphone lights onto their menus. Of course, it’s also common for me, after living four blocks away for almost five years, to walk right past the door.
But this is Highland Park, so in-the-loop customers know where to step in. They also know that behind the dark veil over the windows, a team supervised by executive chef Julian Barsotti produces a menu of pizzas, pastas and wood-fired meats that is revised and updated every day. During a decade of service here, Barsotti has opened two more restaurants with another in the works, but Nonna remains an excellent place to eat and a closely guarded neighborhood secret.
Given how frequently Nonna’s menu changes, it’s hard to offer firm recommendations. But look out for pastas that seem especially in tune with the fresh produce of the season. In February, the star was agnolotti filled with a smoky-sweet puree of sunchokes and topped with small, paper-thin, crisped-up slices of kale and ham ($18). The sunchoke-filled pasta was rich and almost creamy while the kale and meat provided a spark of contrast in both texture — crispness against the smooth backdrop — and in their sharper savory flavor. It was a marvel of a bowl, gone in a week.
Shortly afterward, chef de cuisine Leslie Gomez moved on to a celebration of spring, with a bowl of penne pasta sprinkled with diced morel mushrooms ($19). The housemade pasta was cooked to al dente perfection, the cream sauce just shy of being too rich. (For $7 extra, any pasta can be enlarged to a main course size, but Nonna’s waiters actively and correctly discourage this.)
Since Nonna opened 10 years ago, Barsotti has expanded his restaurant empire to Carbone’s, also in Highland Park and specializing in red-sauce Italian-American classics, and Sprezza, a sort of more casual version of Nonna with a bustling trade in Roman-style pizzas.
That’s the risk of expanding a business too quickly. But while Sprezza’s star may be waning, Barsotti still treats Nonna like a home base. Once at lunchtime, my companion and I complained about the solo businessman at the next table practically shouting into his cellphone. Then we realized that the offender was the owner.
“Without a doubt, it’s my home base,” Barsotti said of Nonna on a later phone call. “This is the place I get to cook on the most. Nonna is where I’m most comfortable in the kitchen. I have my knives here.”
Barsotti said that, at 10 years old, Nonna’s customer base is mainly composed of regulars.
“I feel like Dallas, especially, chases the trends,” he explained. “I don’t know who that audience is, but they flock from spot to spot. Recalling it, we once were that spot here. Nonna’s first year and a half or so, it was the hot restaurant. And I think about how much better we’ve got since then.”
That’s the thing about trend-chasers: They often miss kitchens at their best.
For a certain type of customer, Fachini sounds like catnip. That clientele will probably not overlap much with the crowd at Nonna, which prefers the discretion and unsung excellence of one of the city’s most overlooked restaurants. This quiet dining room, behind its poorly marked door and thick window shades, will continue to be the least talked-about Barsotti restaurant.
It will probably also continue to be the best.
Nonna, 4115 Lomo Alto Drive, 214-521-1800, nonnadallas.com. Open 5:30-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Friday, and 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday. Opening delayed to 6 p.m. in summer months.