For a restaurant that opened over a decade ago, Nonna still feels like a secret. It hovers on the edges of the spotlight, watching as newer openings and other Dallas favorites steal our attention. Its website hails from an era of the internet when people thought it was a good idea to imprison every word of text in stationary GIFs.
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.
For most customers, the main attractions are the fresh pastas made in house. But we’re fondest of the work being done in the last course, where that wood oven takes center stage. Main courses like quail stuffed with sausage-mushroom risotto or a comically huge lamb shank make a good argument for saving stomach room for the main event. In February, the quail and its earthy, savory stuffing came perfectly cooked, the bird’s skin crisp but its insides still juicy and pull-apart tender ($30).
The pizzas here have crusts so thin they feel like magic tricks. In a city brimming with thin-crust Italian pies, Nonna appears to be responding to a dare, rolling out a dough best measured in millimeters and keeping it reasonably firm, if not exactly crisp, all the way through the middle. The star is the White Clam Pie, one of just two items, along with lobster ravioli, that never leave the menu ($20). It’s an over-the-top creamy rush of garlic, cream and caramelized Vidalia onion with the odd bit of clam for good measure. Parents, take note: This is how to get picky kids to eat seafood.
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.)
The only missteps I’ve encountered at Nonna also happen at the pasta course. I’ve tasted seafood-based pastas that seemed blurry, with individual flavors failing to come through, and the occasional bowl that had a few too many grinds of salt. Then again, I’ve also enjoyed one of Dallas’ finest salads, starring little gem lettuce, thin wisps of radish and the unlikely addition of a handful of fava beans for added texture ($11). It’s constructed like a layer cake, with shavings of firm ricotta for the icing, and dressed with a splash of oil and a dash of white vinegar. Nothing else is needed.
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.
For a time, the trio of Barsotti businesses seemed unbeatable. But then numerous friends told me horror stories about slow meals, botched orders and forgotten courses at Sprezza. I returned recently and had all those nightmares combine over a lunch that, through forgotten orders and kitchen mismanagement, stretched beyond 90 minutes — for a sandwich.
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.
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The fourth restaurant in Barsotti’s empire, Fachini, is expected to open in April in Highland Park Village. Rather than hiring away outside chefs, Barsotti is relying on his favored practice of promoting trusted hands from within. Fachini, infected with over-the-top Italian-American largesse, expects to serve dishes like a 100-layer lasagna and Caesar salads made at the table. In other words, it will be everything Nonna is not.
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.