Nana’s Italian Ristorante and Pizzeria
They gotta the best ricotta
I worked at the Olive Garden right out of culinary school—I was young, I needed the money—so I had a pretty thorough grounding in the mass production of Italian food. I used to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to make 50-gallon tanks of meat sauce, and bread row after row of chicken Parmesan and little mozzarella triangles. Then it all changed. Prepackaged came, saw and conquered, and instead of the fresh, handmade favorites on the menu, there were bags of premade frozen mozzarella patties and chicken parmigiana. This really bugged me, but I did not know why at the time.
I had the distinct privilege (yeah, I said it) of dining at Nana’s, and I believe that this was the best Italian meal I’ve had since I moved to Albuquerque (yeah, I said that, too).
My date and I slid into the place a half hour before closing time, fully expecting a tired, cranky server and lasagna with those hard edges. We actually got brilliant service from the great-granddaughter of Nana herself, the smiley Sarah. I scoped the beer and wine list and found several Italian beers like Peroni, Moretti and Moretti La Rosa. Their wine list, though modest, includes a couple of good picks from Rubicon Estate (Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyards, formerly Niebaum-Coppola) such as the Coppola Diamond Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. I’ve tried the Sauvignon Blanc before, and it’s a lot of mellow pear and fig, perfect for all of the tangy red sauces.
I opted for a raspberry Italian soda ($2.50) so I wouldn’t fall asleep on my plate, and it was a whole glassful, not the puny wineglass serving you sometimes get. I took a long look at the appetizer menu and noticed some appealing starters like toasted raviolis, fried mushrooms, mozzarella bread baked with green chile, and an antipasta platter. F.Y.I., antipasta (antipasto, antipasti) is an assortment of cold meats, cheeses and vegetables served before the meal.
My choice to skip the starter was legit, because for dinner I ordered the Nana’s sampler ($16.29) which came with a soup or salad, bread, lasagna, manicotti, eggplant parmigiana and spaghetti, all slathered with homemade meat sauce. Whew! I wanted the full monty, and I surely got it.
First of all, this meal is enough for two, three or even four moderately hungry people. The minestrone soup came first, and it was strangely beanless but obviously fresh. The broth was heavy on the tomato and very herby, and the hand-cut carrots and celery were nicely balanced with elbow pasta, making the soup very rustic and enjoyable.
I had a quick tour of the place while waiting for my entrée, and I absolutely loved the atmosphere. There were big, beat-up pleather booths, neon beer signs in the windows, hand-sewn red curtains on the windows, and an open kitchen with pots clanging and yummy smells wafting out. There were even mobster hits on the sound system. I was in a New York state of mind.
And then came the big ’un. The huge plate of food landed on my table like a cheese-covered U.F.O., and I soon realized that there was something special about the ricotta. The manicotti was fat, hot and filled with the lightest, fluffiest, most delicious ricotta cheese I’ve ever eaten. Let’s face it—ricotta can be heavy and even tough when handled improperly. It’s temperamental stuff. The eggplant was tender and meaty, and the lasagna had its share of superior cheese and also plenty of homemade meat sauce. This sauce was smothered on the spaghetti, too, and I have to say that the sauce I make at home is boss, but I would buy stock in theirs. The perfect blend of sweet, spicy and tangy in this stuff may be the reason the spaghetti special ($4.95, all-you-can-eat, with soup or salad and bread, Sunday through Thursday evening) is so darn popular.
“Well, that and the price—it’s a good deal,” laughed Sarah, who regaled me with stories of 60-gallon pots of meat sauce, and how even though she’s family, she gets no special treatment from the boss (Dad). She was recently busted for being late to work, but took it in stride.
“This is a great place to work,” she said.
This is also a great place to eat dinner, and I was touched to see a copy of Nana’s (Concetta Fillciotto, 1893-1997) immigration certificate framed and hanging on the wall. It’s the little things like this that make me truly sad to see so much premade, frozen crap pass for real, made-with-love Italian food. Sorry, Olive Garden (and most of your chain brothers and sisters), when you move too far away from the real thing, it’s just not the same anymore. Consistency will never make up for ingenuity.
Go for the spaghetti, go for the chocolate-covered cannoli, but just go eat there. Period. Warm, fuzzy home feelings and Sarah are waiting for you.