It was last Saturday, yes, last Saturday, that I went, finally, to I Nonni. Long bally-hooed as the top Italian joint in the Twin Cities—or the state, I’d never been there, despite it bening about 4 miles south of my humble abode, across the river in Lilydale.
A little background: the restaurant is set up kinda like Levain is—as almost an afterthought. Levain is a dining room in the back of Turtle Lake Bread Company on 48th and Chicago in Minneapolis (side note: Levain Chef Steven Brown puts out American fare every bit as innovative and fresh tasting as Tim McKee’s French cuisine at La Belle Vie). I Nonni is tucked in the back of the Buon Giorno Italian Market. It’s a fabulous dining room, however, the décor much warmer than Levain.
Now, for the day job, I’ve talked to the I Nonni chef, Filippo Caffari, in the past. He’s a butcher from Rome who moved here about a decade ago and, after finding butchering in America to be boring (we don’t use the whole animal), decided to begin cooking (well, he always cooked, he just started doing it professionally) and eventually opened a restaurant. Which failed. Eventually, he teamed up with Buon Giorno owner Rich Marchionda, and when Marchionda took his operation to Lilydale from St. Paul a few years ago, they decided to open a real Italian restaurant, featuring Caffari’s Roman cooking.
Now, the key to real Italian cooking is its freshness. Now “fresh” is a word that’s being tossed around frequently in the biz these days. But a fresh tomato in April is still going to suck, because it’s not from around here and it’s probably the variety that will hold up well in the shipping container, not on your plate or palate. So real Italian food (And you could say the same about and “real” food from any region of the planet) relies on seasonal fare. I didn’t eat one tomato through my meal at I Nonni, and I was glad about that. Caffari does what he knows best, and that’s simple, flavorful meals that almost make you think you could pull it off at home, but you know better. There’s a tremendous amount of skill at work here; everything flavor is perfectly balanced.
I wish I could remember my and the lady friend’s meal in intricate detail, but our company wouldn’t allow for it. Not that all of it was bad, just one-third out of our three guests. We didn’t know he was showing up. We thought it was an evening for four, and, well, it was for five.
Now, without going into detail, for fear one of them, by some fluke, might be reading this mighty blog, this guy’s a fantastic idiot, who’s idiotic spoutings are sprinkled liberally with the word “like.” A I’m prone to outbursts—even when not drinking—when presented with such outright stupidity. As this moron began talking, the lady friend, beneath the table, rested her hand on my thigh and began squeezing, as if applying a hand brake to avoid a car crash that was inevitably coming.
Long story short, it happened, and there was silence.
But, like Mariano Rivera strolling from the Yankees bullpen, our server arrived with the save, placing my and the lady friend’s pasta course between us, a simple papardelle with the most flavorful ground lamb I’ve had in a long time.
What followed was veal osso bucco with a lemon zest risotto for me, and halibut with spring greens in some sorta light vinaigrette and pineapple for the lady friend. My veal was tender as all get-out, the lemon not overpowering; it lightened the whole meal, actually. The lady friend’s halibut was also about as perfect as you can get, full of flavor and the greens and pineapple pieces a perfect complement. Again, the word is simplicity.
Conversation turned to something resembling sanity, I ordered a tirmisu for dessert for me and the lady friend, and the others a chocolate bomb sorta thing I can’t remember. The wine had taken hold. At least I can remember a tad more than Harold—for fuck’s sake, he went here with his honcho chef friend, who had them eating free out of the kitchen all night with accompanying wines. You think he’d remember one particle of information. But no, alas, no. Only that it was damn good. Yes, it’s I Nonni, for damn fine Italian food.
S’pose I should mention that I Nonni is considered a fine dining establishment. That doesn’t mean you have to dress to the nines, however. But don’t show up in a sweatshirt, high tops, and a mullet, either. You can eat cheaply at I Nonni ( and I’ll probably return to do just that) but if you want to do Italian right, with the antipasti, primi piatti, secondi, etc., expect to drop a dime or two. Nothing like an eight-course at La Belle Vie, but still, it’s a bit of change. But you will be rewarded.
And yes yes yes, there’s vegetarian fare, too. Go, and enjoy. Even with company you’d like to stab in the throat, I Nonni will make your evening a pleasant memory.