Nonna's Meatball Comfort

Dayna McErlean's NE Killingsworth tavern delivers grandma-caliber linguini (and a winning wine list)

By Benjamin Tepler April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Lauren Lark

Imagine an Italian grandmother lovingly plumping meatballs, humming a tune from the old country. Now plant her in a dark cocktail bar. That’s Nonna, a new tavern from the crew at intimate kitchen DOC that mashes up New York–style Italian food (gravy, not tomato sauce) with Portland’s mixology scene. As with many local bars, the real focus at Nonna is the food: hand-cut pasta, deep-fried arancini, and deliciously unfussy vegetables. 

The eatery’s casual vibe and prices are a departure from DOC, its neighbor on this NE Killingsworth Street destination corner. Anchored by a U-shaped bar, the space is segmented into two halves: a watering hole replete with PDX’s usual industrial fixtures, and a place to eat and linger, with patterned wallpaper, cut-glass bar lights, and red leather benches.

As at all newfangled taverns, there are cocktails. Nonna’s come incongruously in the form of still shaky “tequila radlers” and “kaffir lime daiquiris.” The bar inherited wine man Austin Bridges from DOC’s Italian trenches and, for now, his winning wine list—with curated pours for around $10 from across Spain and Italy—is the way to go.

Chef Jobie Bailey, another DOC vet, transitions from date-night fine dining to drink-friendly red gravy with ease. Simply cooked vegetables, like crispy brussels sprouts in a tangy, lemon citrus–steeped cream, are a steal at $6. The linguini list, rolled fresh and sauced four ways, is worth exploration, especially the squid and olive variety, with its intensely garlicky, spice-flecked sauce and tender rings of calamari. Top marks go to the manicotti: three pasta scrolls stuffed with ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes, browned until bubbly on the outside, and topped with deeply flavored tomato sauce. If only your nonna made it this good.

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