Imagine a real Italian grandma, maybe Lidia Bastianich, lovingly plumping meatballs with her thick, muscular forearms from decades of pasta rolling and humming a tune from the old country. Now imagine it all happening inside a dark Portland cocktail bar. That’s Nonna, a self-proclaimed “tavern,” mashing together New York Italian food (gravy rather than tomato sauce) and Portland’s Northwest mixology scene.
But like many of the contemporary taverns in this city, the real focus is on the food: hand-cut pasta, deep-fried arancini balls, and vegetables, simply prepared with garlic and chile flakes. Nonna isn’t authentic or ambitiously Northwest-sourced, but it’s cheap, cozy, and pretty damn good.
The latest addition to restaurateur Dayna McErlean’s constellation of eateries on Northeast Killingsworth and 30th, Nonna sits next door to its upscale sister restaurant, DOC, and down the street from her other spot, Japanese-inspired Yakuza. The 60-seat space is anchored by a big U-shaped bar and segmented into two halves: the first, a straight up watering hole with Portland’s usual industrial fixtures and dark, reclaimed wood; the second, a place to linger, wrapped in patterned wallpaper, cut glass bar lights and big tables flanked by red leather benches for group dining (also: Portland’s smallest restaurant bathroom).
McErlean poached chef Jobie Bailey and talented wine man Austin Bridges for her new project, both fresh from DOC’s trenches. Like all newfangled Portland taverns, there are cocktails. Nonna’s come incongruously in the form of still shaky “tequila radlers” and “kaffir lime daiquiris.” For now, Bridges wine list, expanded from his Italian-only policy at DOC, is the way to go.
The food is more dialed in. Simply cooked vegetables, like the caramelized Brussels sprouts sitting in a tangy, lemon citrus-steeped cream, are a steal at $6. The four-piece linguini list, rolled fresh daily, is worth exploration too—especially the squid and olive variety, with its intensely garlicky, spice-flecked sauce and tender rings of calamari. But top marks go to Nonna’s manicotti: three scrolls of fresh pasta, stuffed with a ricotta-sundried tomato blend, topped with tomato sauce and browned in a cast iron skillet until crispy on the outside. If only the real nonna made it this good.
5513 NE 30th Ave