Eating Adventures

Nonna's Balances Classic Italian and Chicago-Style Street Fare

Johnnie must have had quite an appetite to have this sandwich named after him.
Johnnie must have had quite an appetite to have this sandwich named after him. Maureen Witten
With an open kitchen, a beautiful bar displaying colorful bottles of wine and spirits, exposed brick throughout the restaurant and water served in wine goblets, the impression when walking into the dining room at Nonna’s Italian Bistro is that you’re in for a first-class dining experience (with a food tab to match). While the eatery does offer such Italian staples as chicken piccata and pappardelle Bolognese, the kitchen goes easy on the fancy platings — and the wallet — with several Chicago-style street-food options such as Italian beef sandwiches and gyros.

And why shouldn’t those be on the menu? After all, Nonna’s was born out of several generations of family-owned and -operated food businesses with roots in Chicago; their first restaurant opened on the Windy City's North Side in 1952. Then Dedria Catalano brought her experience and love of Chicago-inspired food to Colorado in 1978, where she opened six Chicago-style delis and a restaurant in various locations around Denver. She sold them all and opened Nonna’s Italian Bistro in 2014, where elegant Italian-style dishes and deli-style street foods come together in one place.

click to enlarge Pasta fagiole soup is a good introduction to Nonna's Chicago-style Italian. - MAUREEN WITTEN
Pasta fagiole soup is a good introduction to Nonna's Chicago-style Italian.
Maureen Witten
If you visit Nonna’s for lunch, you’ll see that this is a good way to have an upscale sit-down lunch for not much more than you’d pay at the neighboring counter-service restaurants. Lots of DTC professionals have already discovered this, as several business types working on laptops and nibbling gourmet salads are scattered throughout the eatery mid-day. The atmosphere is quiet and pleasing for semi-formal work meetings while also accommodating for a mom and her child a few booths over.

Papa Mike’s pasta fagiole soup is a satisfying and inexpensive way to start your lunch, since you get a large, meal-sized bowl of al dente pasta and beans floating among chunks of bacon in a garlicky broth for $5. Since it's served with a piece of Nonna's melt-in-your-mouth garlic bread, you could easily fill up on this dish alone. Wish I could say the same for the red pepper and lime chicken Gouda soup; Like the pasta fagiole, it comes in a generous portion, but the tiny shreds of chicken were stringy and off-putting, coupled with the awkward mishmash of lime-flavored chicken, roasted red pepper and Gouda that were unfortunately not a symbiotic combination.
click to enlarge A meatball sub hits the right Italian-American notes. - MAUREEN WITTEN
A meatball sub hits the right Italian-American notes.
Maureen Witten
Johnnies Italian Combo ($13) is a good way to sample two classic Chicago-style deli sandwiches in one, since it combines Italian roast beef and Italian sausage on one French bread roll. Paper-thin and marbled with fatty goodness, the roast beef was tender and delicious, and the crusty bread soaked up the beefy jus nicely. Even though the menu lists them as part of the sandwich, be sure to request hot peppers on top if you like it spicy, as my waitress advised me that the sandwich does not come out with them if not specifically requested. The sausage link was large and had nice char-grill marks on both sides, with flecks of red pepper and fennel seeds inside. The side of pasta salad was cold and mild and cooled the palate after a mouthful of hot peppers from the sandwich.

The meatball sandwich ($11) is another way to experience Nonna’s Italian flare at lunch pricing. The meatballs are impressively large and dense with a light anise flavor and a thick piece of melty mozzarella on top. The home-made marinara sauce on the side was a bright and flavorful accompaniment and kept the sandwich from seeming a little dry.

While the food was good, the service was lacking. Though I was greeted once I walked past the entryway and into the dining room, the front of the restaurant was a ghost town, as it had been in my previous visits. If you’ve ever visited Nonna’s, you've seen the tempting desserts stocked in the cases up front: giant chocolate cakes, glossy gelato and come-hither cookies. I never understood why they’re not keen on staffing a host or server for the anterior room to sell the tantalizing sweets to interested customers on their way out, as well as to promptly seat those coming in to dine. In fact, there was one person occasionally coming out of the kitchen to seat guests collecting awkwardly at front of the dining room, and only one waitress to serve the entire restaurant during my recent visit. This unfortunately made for a frustrating dining experience, since getting a table was a chore, followed by an undesirably long lunch that lacked prompt meal disbursal, along with several attempts to flag down the waitress for water refills, forgotten side dishes and the tab.

click to enlarge Grab dessert from the pastry case before you leave. - MAUREEN WITTEN
Grab dessert from the pastry case before you leave.
Maureen Witten
Service aside, we were told that the drum set and piano at the dining room entrance are there for lively performances on Friday and Saturday nights, which could also make this an ideal spot for an entertaining and classy date night out (surely some Sinatra standards are on the playlist). And since the food at Nonna’s does the trick and prices are comparable to many surrounding restaurants in the area, this is also a recommended place for those looking for sit-down lunch with a touch of elegance — as long as you have some time on your hands in case of a staff shortage.

And if you're enticed by the display of cakes, cookies or gelatos in the front room, I’d advise you to pick one out on your way in and plan to order it at the end of your meal, as that will most likely be your only opportunity —and, from the looks of the goods on offer, well worth the effort to plan ahead.

Nonna’s Italian Bistro is located at 11877 East Arapahoe Road in Centennial and is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from  11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations and takeout orders can be called in at 303-790-9999, or visit the restaurant's website for more information and menus.
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Denver native Maureen Witten is a suburban mom of two and online author who is unapologetically obsessed with all things food. Eating her way up major thoroughfares throughout metro Denver, she enjoys highlighting the gems hidden among the chain eateries.