Grazing: First Look at Nonna Mia

Plus, Italian food done right, American breakfasts and Middle Eastern dinners

The latest entry in the city’s pizza war is Nonna Mia (980 Piedmont Ave., 404-532-2815), a Sicilian-inspired café that's part of a new chain out of New Orleans.

The restaurant has taken over the space last occupied by Sweet Devil Moon and many others before that. In the 1970s, when I lived a few blocks from there, it was the original location of Proof of the Pudding, now a huge catering company, which at the time also served unique sandwiches and salads.

In my recollection, the longest-lived restaurant here after Proof moved was the Big Red Tomato, a New York-style Italian café with an entertaining vibe and fairly good food. Nobody has succeeded with the location since.

I might as well say at the outset that the pizza here simply does not measure up to the standard prevailing in the city now, thanks to Varasano’s and Fritti. We ordered one of the signature pies, the Siciliana, which is topped with roasted red peppers, prosciutto, kalamata olives, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Sounds great, eh?

Unfortunately, the pie's chewy, thin crust was almost white, much less charred, and the tomato sauce tasted unpleasantly tinny. The prosciutto was cut into sardine-sized strips and, weirdly, the kalamatas were almost entirely clustered on one half of the pie. Sorry, but it just won’t do.

The rest of our meal was better for the most part. In fact, our best dish was the shared appetizer, Divine Portobello. The mushrooms were sliced and tossed with chunks of grilled chicken breast and spinach in a roasted red-pepper sauce. The menu describes the sauce as “spicy.” It was not.

We also ordered manicotti made with ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella and fontina cheeses. It’s hard to complain about what amounted to a big bowl of creamy melted cheese loosely wrapped in some pasta with a bit of tomato-basil sauce. If you need to put on weight fast, eat this three times daily for a week.

Dessert, I’m sorry to say, was even worse than the pizza. We ordered the tiramisu. First of all, the texture wasn't creamy, partly because the dessert included gigantic chunks of chocolate. Think Hershey boulders. We found them inedible and Wayne suggested we take them home and melt them to make chocolate wings, since Café Circa took that dish, our fave, off its menu. But we left them.

The restaurant’s staff is amiable and it’s clear everyone wants to please. But in a city relatively obsessed with Italian cooking, this food is going to have to improve. Big. Time.

Meanwhile, one of the city’s favorite Italian restaurants, La Tavola (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430), celebrated its 10th anniversary with a special menu, June 17-27. Executive chef Craig Richards, who trained five years under renowned Lidia Bastianich, offered a $29 prix-fixe menu of longtime favorites. (You could also order a la carte off the special menu.)

Honestly, I’m all for prix-fixe menus but this one fell into the usual category. It basically saved you the price of dessert. If you didn’t order the bread pudding dessert, you ended up spending less than $29, for the most part.

So, pinching our pennies, Wayne ordered from the special menu so we could share the dessert, while I ordered two dishes from the regular menu. (I think we saved $3!) His starter was black-pepper-crusted carpaccio topped with arugula salad, some parmesan and artichokes. Wayne counseled that the pungent, crispy arugula overwhelmed the carpaccio’s mild flavor and creamy texture if he ate both at the same time. So take one bite of this and then another of that.

For his entrée, he chose fregola, the couscous-like pasta, with littleneck clams, garlic and Calabrian chilies to add a kick. I’ve had this dish several times before and loved it. This trip, the clams were really tiny in their shells.

I ended up ordering my usual dishes, including the restaurant’s beet salad with shaved fennel, pears, ricotta and pistachios. It’s ideal summertime food, even if it’s hard to go in a restaurant these days and not find a version of this salad.

My entrée was one of the menu’s most expensive ($18.95), the Cacciucco, a fish stew native to the port city of Livorno. Every time I’ve ordered this in the past, I’ve asked for a spoon to get all the delicious tomato-herb broth, which is partly absorbed by a large slice of bread in the bowl. Mainly, the stew contained clamari, shrimp and clams, along with some pieces of an unidentified fish.

The warm apple-bread pudding was gooey with raisins, caramel and vanilla ice cream — not a chocolate boulder in sight.

The restaurant was surprisingly crowded for a Tuesday night, when we visited. So make a reservation. We were stuck in a corner with utterly no light. I used my iTouch flashlight application to read the menu and Wayne borrowed a flashlight from a server. That aspect of the meal was very unpleasant.

Leaving the Italian theme, let’s head to Midtown for breakfast and Middle Eastern themes. That’s right. Midtown Mediterranean Diner (112 10th St., 404-228-7401), which has taken over the Jocks and Jills location, serves your typical American breakfast 24/7, along with some Middle Eastern dishes for dinner.

Wayne and I shared a starter of (expensive) babaganouj with (too little) pita bread that was fresh enough to put us in an optimistic frame of mind. Unfortunately, our entrees of skewered kabobs — lamb for me, chicken for Wayne — left much to be desired.

Both meats were quite dry, but if you have to choose, go for the garlicky chicken. The lamb was unpleasantly gamy. Sautéed vegetables were fine.

A friend with pretty good taste has been here for breakfast and said he enjoyed it. You go and let me know.

Although the space seems disproportionately huge for its function, it has potential. Our server said the staff includes Turks, Bulgarians, Moroccans and Russians. And the patio, on a relatively cool evening, is a great spot to sit and watch the exotic fishes of Midtown swim by.

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