Some restaurants get better with age. Six years after opening, and four years after founding chef Lino De Vivo bought the place from its original owner, La Nonna Bella is turning out some very impressive Italian food.
Pastas were the undisputed stars of a recent dinner. The menu lists 15 pastas, and an observant diner can perceive — even before tasting — that the kitchen knows what to do with them. First, there are the little-seen shapes such as strascinate (leaf-shaped Pugliese pasta) and homemade cavatelli. Second, there is a distinct absence of what I call kitchen-sink pastas, preparations cobbled together from ingredients that the chef knows diners like but which lack both integrity and cohesion, e.g. rigatoni with grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. (In my opinion, there is no such thing as a good pasta dish made with grilled chicken.)
Our knowledgeable waiter told us that there were two native Italians in the kitchen, owner Lino De Vivo from Puglia and chef Franco Castelli from Lazio (Rome’s region). The two men brought an unmistakable mastery to the three pastas we ordered: Tight, wincingly peppery spaghetti cacio pepe was bound only by copious amounts of cacio, a sheep's milk younger and softer than, say Pecorino Romano. Orecchiette (the ear-shaped pasta of Puglia) came with a soft, mellow, tomato-less Genovese ragu. Cavatelli Conversanese, named for De Vivo’s hometown, was a new taste sensation for me: stubby but delicate homemade pasta with spinach and smashed fresh fava beans.
La Nonna Bella also has a serious wine list — four Amarones — and even the wines by the glass offer little-quaffed highlights of Italian viticulture. Reds by the glass included Salice Salentino, Valpolicella Ripasso, Primitivo.
So much for the excellent. Among La Nonna Bella’s very good dishes were an appetizer of greaseless batons of fried zucchini and a carpaccio of beef strewn with baby arugula and Parmesan.
Not so great: Veal saltimbocca, dry despite its unorthodox blanket of mozzarella, and tough, dull (though huge) shrimp scampi.
I’m usually indifferent to restaurant lighting (as long as I can see the menu) but diners seated on La Nonna Bella’s upper level must contend with harsh, uneven lighting provided by chandeliers and sconces that are very near eye level. Simply replacing the existing clear bulbs with opaque or frosted ones would help immeasurably.
La Nonna Bella is at 660 Franklin Ave., Garden City, 516-248-0366.