There is a neighborhood in my hometown of St. Louis called the Hill.
Great things have come out of that Italian immigrant pocket. Like baseball legends Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. Like five of the no-name guys on the slapdash 1950 U.S. men’s national team who defeated England in a 1-0 World Cup upset known as the “Miracle on Grass.”
The Hill also is home to loads of mom-and-pop Italian ristorantes, grocers and bakeries. It’s the headquarters for national sausage name Volpi, and is purported to be the birthplace of a St. Louis specialty known as toasted ravioli.
Italians sure have flavored life this side of the ocean, I thought, as I twirled nicely al dente spaghetti at Nino’s on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta.
Atlanta does not have an Italian section of town. It recently lost longtime cucina Alfredo’s . But, just down the street, there’s still Nino’s. Now nearly 50 years old, Nino’s is as old-school as it gets.
To those with a bit of Italian blood coursing through their veins, walking in the door at Nino’s might feel like coming home to Nona’s house, the air filled with smells of the kitchen — read: garlic, olive oil and pasta water. To others, the dim lights, low ceiling, slightly dated decor and mostly older, male waiters donning black aprons might evoke images of an osteria once visited in the terra patria. Either way, it’s inviting.
So are the bread and wine, fundamental to an Italian meal. You’re off to a good start at Nino’s, where every table gets a complimentary plate of bruschetta — chopped tomatoes and minced garlic mounded over olive-oil brushed slices of toasted bread — as well as fabulously crusty, warmed pane Italiano, served with triangles of chilled butter.
The focus on the bottle list is, properly, Italian, and there are reds aplenty, whether your Denominazione di Origine of choice is Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino or Chianti. Don’t dismiss the house wine, where a more than serviceable Montepulciano runs $8 a glass, $18 for half a carafe (equating to about three glasses) and $30 for a full one.
It was my server, Dan, who tipped me off to Montepulciano, the first of many definitive, helpful recommendations he offered. Another pointer: If seafood is on your mind, the Spaghetti al Peperoncino Eva, with plump, sautéed shrimp and artichokes, offers a nice bite of controlled heat from red pepper. Coated in a garlic and olive oil, it’s a simple but delicious dish.
The Eva may be the best example of the simple, traditional Italian-American cuisine that Nino’s puts out. This is not a place where modern Italian, chef-driven creations or house-made charcuterie are on display. Burrata, for example, isn’t made in the kitchen, but Nino’s has found a brand that works — BelGioioso’s black truffle burrata — and it rounds out that super creamy ball on a platter with average prosciutto and above average ribbons of roasted eggplant holding the tang of balsamic.
Sure, there will be a couple of specials, and grouper is an off-the-menu offering pretty much every night, though the prep method changes. Otherwise, the menu is static.
But, when you’ve got your recipes down, why change? Such is the case with a fantastic, classic marinara sauce that makes a fine appearance atop chicken parmesan or as an accompaniment to lightly battered and fried calamari satisfyingly seasoned with salt and black pepper. Likewise, with a sturdy square of home-style lasagna oozing with Bolognese and cheese, or a bowl of spaghetti and golf-ball-sized meatballs, moist and flavorful from an 80/20 ratio of ground beef to pork.
There is more to appreciate. Nino’s doesn’t serve up messy, clumsy Italian fare. Pastas are not drowning in sauce. A cream sauce for the pappardelle, for example, didn’t obscure the harmonious flavors of peas, zucchini, asparagus and thick strips of crisped prosciutto. And, if you want variety, all of the pastas can be ordered as appetizer-sized dishes; portions are ample, but cost about half the price.
Not all of the dishes wowed. A Caesar salad didn’t pack the anchovy punch I crave. Gnocchi, one of the few house-made pastas, was heavy and undercooked. The meat filling for a cannelloni special was nicely seasoned but dry. Vitello Romana, a veal stack layered with prosciutto, eggplant and mozzarella cheese, was prettily presented, but wasn’t memorable in taste. Neither was the grouper; the pan-fried fish and its bed of cannellini beans were wrecked by a tinny-tasting tomato sauce.
So, let’s return to where Nino’s consistently shines: service. Even when the house is packed with regulars, plus families and friends of all ages celebrating a special occasion, your table is not forgotten. You will be taken care of. That’s as much a part of the tradition as that initial plate of bruschetta or the meal-ending dessert cart rolling your way.
Atlanta does not have an Italian section of town. But, it has still has Nino’s.
1931 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E., Atlanta. 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Sundays. 404-874-6505, ninosatlanta.com.