Lunenburg, Nova Scotia has been buzzing about Trattoria della Nonna, a new Italian restaurant, since it opened in mid-February. In such a small town, that’s not unexpected.
But what has really surprised me is how many Haligonians have been planning a South Shore visit so they can try della Nonna. Several Chowhound posters have been chafing at the bit, and my sister made a special trip with her husband and two friends a fortnight ago, and is already looking forward to a return visit.
How lucky for us, then, to live just a few blocks away. We slipped down the street in early March, when a sudden snowstorm led others to cancel, providing us with opportunity and motive. It had been a good week, and we wanted to celebrate.
Lunenburg already has two excellent restaurants in Magnolia’s Grill and Fleur de Sel, and Trattoria della Nonna gives this World Heritage Site a bevy of fine dining rooms. That’s an important consideration for tourists, as the entire county — with Chester and Lunenburg excepted — has few good restaurants.
And Trattoria della Nonna is very good, even by city standards. The kitchen aims high, and though some dishes need to be fine-tuned or reconsidered, it’s a worthy addition to the South Shore dining community.
The restaurant has been under construction since we moved to Lunenburg last June, and the attention to detail shows. The dining room is located in a stately old home. It's lovely and comforting, with a butter yellow faux finish to the walls, wrought iron railings, and bright artwork.
The dining room is almost full when we arrive, the storm not withstanding. In the time it takes us to shed our winter garb, no fewer than three staff members greet us with wide smiles. Impressive. It’s obvious that Simone Mombourquette — a certified sommelier — has trained them well.
We’re seated on the upper level, near the brick pizza oven, and though we’re far from the action below, it’s still a good table. Our waiter arrives in less than a minute with water, retreats to let us a choose a wine, and returns almost immediately when I’ve closed the wine menu. So far, so good.
The wine list is brilliant for such a new restaurant, especially in this area of Nova Scotia. Italian wines predominate, as you’d expect, and if travelers find the prices high, they can blame our government-run liquor commission. We settle on Frescobaldi’s Castello di Nipozzano Riserva 2003, expecting that its bright, cherryish fruit and lively acidity will pair nicely with the courses to follow. We’re aiming big, planning to enjoy four full courses at Trattoria della Nonna, dining as if we were in Halifax at da Maurizio.
That might have been a mistake, for the first appetizers are substantial. Cold smoked salmon is served with caper tartara, mascarpone, thinly-sliced fennel and celery, and crostini; it’s delightful, and visually appealing. The salmon is full of flavor, and building little ingredient pyramids makes for a stimulating interplay of tastes and textures. With a little experimentation, I decide that I like this dish best as the kitchen intended, building the crostini with a dollop of each ingredient.
My partner choses Calamari, served as you’d expect with chilies, olives and a surprisingly-mild marinara. Truth to tell, we often order squid in Italian restaurants to test the kitchen, for it must be flash fried and on the table within seconds, or it simply won’t work. Chef Terry Vassallo, previously at Seven and The Five Fisherman, does well, but the squid are slightly overcooked, and the flavors somewhat mild. But it’s still a good dish.
We follow with La Ribollita, a traditional Florentine soup, and the Comporre salad, lush with wild greens, tall radicchio, roasted grapes, spiced pine nuts, and Gorgonzola dressing. The salad is brilliant and beautiful, and my partner delights in every bite, for the greens are truly bitter, and the dressing worthy. Well done! The Tuscan bean soup is billed as slow-cooked, but it can’t be, for the veggies were crunchy. The flavors are subtle, with virgin olive oil adding richness and a hint of complexity, but the soup isn’t as hearty or comforting as it should be.
In the evening’s only economy, we choose our main courses from the less-pricey pizza and pasta sections. We might have ordered Agnello (pesto-crusted rack of lamb), Saltimbocca (pork loin with prosciutto, fontina, and flambéed prawns), or Salmone (served with fagliolo, smoked sausage and balsamic butter), but we’ll do so on our next visit.
Instead, we opt for gnocchi and a Pizza Napolitina, prepared in the brick oven near our table. The gnocchi are full of flavor, tossed with a rich sauce comprised of goat cheese, pomodoro, and pancetta. It’s delicious, and the gnocchi melt in your mouth. If not for a slightly grainy texture to the potato pasta, it would be fabulous.
The pizza is substantial, too. It comes with a fine thin crust laden with salty goodness, including anchovies, olives, and goat cheese, brightened by sweet cherry tomatoes. It’s quite good, but ultimately one-dimensional. We’d like to see more tomatoes, and perhaps a liberal sprinkling of fresh or dried herbs for complexity. But paired with the Chianti, which refreshes the palate with each swallow, the pizza is still enjoyable.
Alas, we only have room for one dessert, the carmelized lemoncello tart with raspberry sorbetto. It’s delicious, but for a tough crust, so we finish our meal in style. Had we had room for one of many post- prandial sippers — including several grappas, an icewine, and a Rutherglen sticky — we might not have made it up the hill.
Our service is almost exceptional, perhaps even a little too prompt and eager, but that’s a quibble. We felt very well cared for, and that’s a wonderful change from recent dining experiences.
In many ways, this review is unfair, for Trattoria della Nonna is still in its infancy. New restaurants need a maiden voyage to work out service kinks, and polish the cuisine. But even though it's premature, color us impressed. Trattoria della Nonna is already a fine restaurant, and we expect it to improve steadily. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s friendly and fine.
Vassallo and Mombourquette should be proud. And so should Lunenburg.