Authentic cooking from Calabria
Trattoria della Nonna
160 North Main St., Mansfield
Tuesday to Saturday, dinner 4 to 10 p.m.
Reservations only for parties of six or more
Major credit cards, except American Express
Trattoria della Nonna is not much to look at from the outside. It’s the sort of place you might just drive by and never think to stop in. But if you make your way down the path alongside the building and head inside, you’ll find yourself in a dimly lit dining room with brick walls adorned with wine bottles, an atmosphere that just might transport you to Italy.
Chef Kenny DeFazio and his wife, Yvonne, opened Trattoria della Nonna in 2000. They wanted the restaurant to have a true Calabrian feel after the kitchen of DeFazio’s grandmother, where he spent much of his time as a child.
Adding to the skills he learned from his grandmother, DeFazio attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, worked alongside Barbara Lynch (who now owns several renowned Boston restaurants), and cooked at Trattoria Pulcinella in Cambridge and Ristorante Marcellino’s in Waltham. With a strong foundation in cooking and the traditions of Calabria, he went on to open his own restaurant.
DeFazio uses mostly local ingredients (importing olive oil and tomatoes from Italy), which he treks in to Boston to purchase each day, including dayboat fish. Some of his rules for cooking are things he learned from his grandmother. He never mixes onions and garlic because she never did, and because the combination, he says, is not as memorable as having each on its own. When a dish is made with either onion or garlic, he explained, you’ll leave knowing which one you ate.
The same goes for herbs. Too many herbs muddle the flavors of the individual herbs, so he will use basil or thyme in a dish, for example, but not both.
The restaurant was bustling with regulars when we arrived around 8 on a Saturday evening. Yvonne informed us that we’d have to wait 30 to 40 minutes for a table, and pointed us in the direction of the lounge.
The lounge, which opened in 2007, is smaller and cozier than the dining room and has a sort of café feel. A single brick oven in the corner is where most of the cooking is done for the small plates that are served only in the lounge. Knowing we’d soon have a full dinner, we refrained from ordering small plates (tempting as the grilled calamari in saffron tomato sauce over a risotto cake sounded) and ordered drinks to pass the time. I opted for the super Tuscan, La Maialina “Gertrude,’’ a spicy, zesty Italian wine with ripe plum and black cherry notes.
Before a half-hour had passed, Yvonne came to find us, and we were seated in the dining room at a table for two tucked in the corner.
Our waitress greeted us just after we sat down and told us the specials - including lamb chops, a stuffed veal chop, and two different preparations of swordfish - which made our eyes light up.
The food came slowly, and I initially feared we’d end up with a pile of dishes in front of us, but everything was evenly spaced out. The slow pace enabled us to enjoy each dish, and when I spoke with DeFazio afterward, he explained that he cooks everything to order - there are no steam tables - so the pace is more leisurely.
After snacking on fresh bread and lightly salted olive oil, we dug into the crispy meatballs ($6) and a half order of the potato gnocchi and short ribs ($13). The meatballs were much firmer than I’m used to and not at all crispy, but the tomato sauce that accompanied them was a delight.
The gnocchi arrived topped with a tender, red wine- and tomato-braised short rib and studded with sweet spring peas. The moment the plate was set down, I caught the earthy scent of truffles. The gnocchi themselves were narrow and thin, light and pillowy, and the half portion could have served as a whole meal.
We followed the appetizers with lighter, refreshing salads. In one, hearts of romaine were tossed with pickled beets, shaved anise, soft goat cheese, and whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. It had warm spicy-sweet flavors throughout - those I don’t usually associate with salad, but they provided a welcome contrast to the cool, crisp lettuce ($8).
In the other salad, field greens came topped with flavorful red tomatoes, tiny pancetta bits that imparted smokiness and crunch, and a shallot and oregano red wine vinaigrette ($7). The portions were extremely generous.
The swordfish ($25), one of the night’s specials, arrived flanked by lemony potatoes, topped with lightly charred asparagus, and dressed with a lemon-caper mixture. One bite revealed that it was perfectly cooked.
The veal chop ($37), a special that’s available with a different filling each week, was impressive in both size and flavor. The large chop was lightly breaded and featured a stuffing of mozzarella, meatballs, tomatoes, and basil. It was moist and juicy, and the components of the filling complemented the medium-rare meat. The basil provided a bright, herby note. Grilled zucchini added a bit of color and a lighter component to the dish.
Not able to leave without dessert, we finished the meal with the Sicilian almond cake ($8). Some Chantilly cream and fresh berries provided light accompaniments to the cake, which had a texture reminiscent of moist cornbread.
We wanted to try the molten chocolate cake, which needs to be ordered in advance as it takes 20 minutes to make, but alas, they were all out. It seems like a good idea to dine early to get an order in for the popular dessert.
If you’re looking for authentic Calabrian cuisine in a warm, welcoming setting, you won’t want to miss Trattoria della Nonna.