In kitchen mythology, no archetype is more powerful than the grandmother, and the most powerful of all is the nonna. Even if you’re not Italian, you probably have some idea of how the archetypal Italian grandma looks and, more specifically, how she cooks.
Pick a major cooking website and you can search for recipes for Nonna’s Meatballs, Nonna’s Gnocchi, Nonna’s Minestrone, Nonna’s Schnitzel, Nonna’s Brodo, Nonna’s Tiramisu, etc., prepared by an army of nonnas brandishing wooden spoons, rolling pins and sprigs of rosemary. One has to wonder what these women might have done if they had been let out of the kitchen.
Restaurants have taken advantage of the nonna factor in their marketing. Some type the word on a dish made with a recipe from the chef’s grandmother. On Staten Island, Enoteca Maria supplements a fairly common Italian-American menu with several dishes each night from a rotating cast of nonnas. Italy initially supplied them all, but for some years now the kitchen has been welcoming grandmothers from other countries, such as Nonna Kathy from Uzbekistan and Nonna Pauline from Trinidad.
But few places have carried Grandma’s mark as far as Nonna Dora’s Pasta Bar. There is a real Dora, whose legal name is Addolorata Marzovilla, and she is a real nonna, born 86 years ago in Puglia. The pasta is hers, rolled and shaped by her hands in a glass-roofed workshop inside the dining room. The pasta bar itself is also hers. She opened it in February in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, the first business she owned after making pasta for more than 30 years at restaurants owned by her son, Nicola.
The latest and oldest of them, I Trulli, closed permanently last year. Ms Marzovilla apparently did not retire well.
“She hated it,” her son said one evening, stopping by my table to suggest a bottle of Chianti. “I had to build her this restaurant so she had something to do.”
When Mrs. Marzovilla gets restless, my best advice is to be hungry. She bakes about 20 kinds of pasta a day — 40 batches in total, if you include the gluten-free option of each variety. Some are rarely seen in New York. One is barely known outside Puglia, where Marzovillas originate: ceci e tria, chickpeas mixed with boiled and fried noodles, rolled into little crispy golden tubes that look like empty cannoli. One theory on this e tria, more formally ciceri e tria, holds that the fried strips of dough were intended to offset the taste of the meat, which few Apulian families could afford. My own guess is that the dish was invented by a restless nonna pushed to the heights of ingenuity by too many plain chickpea pasta nights.
A better-known product from Puglia’s hard times is grano arso flour, ground from charred wheat kernels salvaged from the fields after the stalks have been cut and burnt to the ground. Ms. Marzovilla kneads the flour into long, thin tubes of maccheroncini, then contrasts their bread-crust flavor with the sweet peas and tender strands of duck confit.
The standards are there too. The fluffy black strands of Nonna Dora’s spaghetti neri retain their squiggles and creases after being dressed with bottarga butter and toasted breadcrumbs. Thin, translucent pappardelle tangles with wild boar ragout in a broth that contains just enough tomato to give it the color of a terracotta planter. The cannelloni, in delicate leafy greens, doesn’t quite contain the filling that spills onto the plate – whipped ricotta with burrata to a smoothness that suggests fior di latte gelato if you could heat it without melt it.
I could complain that the cavatelli seem heavy and dull, but I suspect that has less to do with the pasta itself than with its filling: chopped broccoli and almonds that don’t quite match a sauce.
In addition to putting Ms. Marzovilla’s skills center stage, turning the pasta into the main event makes Nonna Dora’s feel more in tune with how people eat now than I Trulli. Those cuts of meat and fish that tend to be the least interesting part of a traditional Italian meal, no matter how good, have been eliminated from the menu. The idea of secondi lives on in the form of large platters for two or more—bistecca Fiorentina, zuppa di pesce—that must be ordered a day in advance.
But the focus is on the things most of us go to Italian restaurants for. A night at Nonna Dora’s might start with a velvety pink mortadella or a sweet-salty culatello, and maybe a few crystalline chunks of two-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Dried fava beans cooked and mashed with dandelion greens – fave e cicoria – might not sound as appealing as a charcuterie platter, but I could probably eat these once a week. I won’t go over the so-called octopus salad – a salad with a not-so-tender octopus leg sitting on top. Fried calamari strips spilling out of a wax paper bag are fun even if the marinara you’re supposed to dip them in is a little thin. The kitchen must keep the best of the sauce for the aubergine in the oven, a setting as pure and convincing as possible for the pleasures of southern Italy.
You eat it all either at tall tables squeezed next to Mrs. Marzovilla’s glass den, or on a stool along a long counter that faces the stove at the other end and shelves of arcane liquor at the other. When you imagine a grandmother in the kitchen, the scene might include a small glass of wine discreetly hidden behind the can of flour. You don’t necessarily envision a top notch cocktail bar, but Nonna Dora’s has one.
Many drinkers will see the Negroni section on the first page of the menu, a growing list with 11 at the last count, and decide to work their way through the whole group. (Negroni Tre has a stiff spine of evergreens, while Negroni Cinque invokes a forager’s basket of wild herbs.)
It’s a nice answer, but the plot thickens on the next page. At the top are Aviation, The Last Word, and other classics; the background is devoted to tiki drinks. Both categories are deeply rooted in Italian minds; the idea behind the tiki tribute was the observation that Italians are behind a number of great rums, including the Capovilla sugarcane rum that goes into the anise-flavored pineapple punch called Frangipane.
As you try to keep the mint sprig and Frangipane’s paper umbrella out of your eyes, you may look around and notice that the most notable thing missing from dinner at Nonna Dora’s Pasta Bar is Nonna Dora’s -same. His workshop, so productive during the day, is mainly used at night for the presentation of desserts. Mrs. Marzovilla, presumably, is at home, gathering strength to prepare the next day’s orrecchiete (in a shiny rabbit stew with tomatoes) and ribbed saffron-tinged malloreddus (shiny with a tomato-sausage sauce).
Who can blame him for a few hours of rest? At the same time, I can’t help but hope that her restaurant will start serving lunch, and that when it does, she’ll be at her post, squeezing some dough on her thumb to put the dimples in those orrecchiete .