Old World New Tastes

Inspired by traditional Italian cuisine, the folks behind Nonna’s are mixing things up with a new chef’s menu at their southside location.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article was fact checked and accurate at press time, but 417 Magazine cannot guarantee its accuracy indefinitely.

The lemon olive oil cake comes with a divine blueberry marscapone ice cream.

The south side Nonna’s, newly rebranded Mangia! A Nonna’s Italian American Kitchen, is in the process of reinventing itself. After almost four years of serving as a faithful replica of the popular downtown location, this southside restaurant is starting to develop an identity of its own. An identity drawing heavily on traditional Italian cuisine, as opposed to the popular American-Italian comfort food that it’s been known for. If you’ve been a staunch fan of Nonna’s food, don’t fear, the downtown location isn’t changing, but the developments at Mangia! are worth checking out. 

The reinvention of Mangia is a gradual one, and it is still in the works. Currently things don’t look very different, and this is on purpose. Shawn Kraft, who owns both restaurants, and his executive chef, Branden Bentley, are in the process of creating a new menu, a process that has already been in the works for several months. In November 2016, Bentley rolled out a new chef’s menu, which is only available Friday and Saturday nights. The chef’s menu features specials that are inspired by traditional Italian food and change every weekend. The menu is a way for Bentley to try out new dishes and gauge customer reactions. Eventually, the best of these dishes will make their way onto Mangia’s menu. But for now, Bentley gets to flex his culinary muscles and experiment with different dishes each weekend.  

Chef Branden Bentley meticulously plates the lemon olive oil cake. 

Tempted by the allure of something new, my friend and I decided to give the chef’s menu a try on a recent Friday night. The menu consisted of one salad, three entree choices and a dessert. I was excited and a bit apprehensive when I saw that the salad for the evening was caprese. I have a love-hate relationship with caprese. Mainly I love it when I make it at home and almost always hate it when I order it at a restaurant. When my friend and I decided to share it, I was seriously hoping I would be pleasantly surprised, but unfortunately that was not the case. 

Chef Branden Bentley wheels an 80-pound wheel of Grana Padano to make the pappardelle bolognese.

My problem with the caprese salad at Mangia! was the same problem I have with caprese salads everywhere: bad tomatoes. Tomatoes make up half of the dish. Flavorful, ripe tomatoes are crucial to the success of any caprese. The tomatoes that night were watery and flavorless. A little piece of advice to all chefs out there: if you don’t have good tomatoes, pass on serving a caprese salad. Luckily, the rest of the dishes more than made up for this blunder.

For our entrees we ordered the paperdelle bolognese and pork and beans. Both were excellent. The pappardelle pasta was served tableside by Kraft, who carted out a giant wheel of flaming Grana Padano cheese. As Kraft tossed the pasta and sauce inside a hollowed out and melty center of the jumbo wheel of cheese, he explained that the pappardelle noodles were specially imported from Italy, and I could tell the difference. They were chewy (in a good way) and had more flavor than your typical store-bought variety. The bolognese was bursting full of rich flavors and had plenty of savory ground pork. For our second entree, the simple title of pork and beans belied the subtlety and complexity of the complex dish. Bentley smoked the pork and then used the rendered fat to cook the Navy beans, which he then lightly tossed in a white wine–tomato sauce. Polenta and perfectly cooked broccoli came on the side.

We ended our meal with a lemon olive oil cake that had us fighting for the last bite. The cake was moist, and the flavor of the lemon balanced out the sweetness. It was so good that I am determined to make it at home. Hopefully it ends up on the new menu. I guess I’ll have to wait and see. 

Porchetta di Amatriciana is a pasta option on Bentley’s new menu. 

Q & A: Executive Chef Branden Bentley 

417 Magazine: Tell me about your career. How did you end up working at Nonna’s? 

Branden Bentley: I started at Fire and Ice for a while and [worked at] Valentine’s before it closed, so my heart was in Italian food from the get-go. I went over to Victory Trade School, and I was an instructor for a few years teaching guys that got out of either prison or like [a] teen challenge program. That really humbled me, and that was the most enjoyable job I’ve had. I went to Aviary, and I was their [executive chef] for four years at Farmers Park and went to food IQ and did that for a couple months and realized I need to be in the kitchen. That’s where my heart’s at. So I talked to Shawn [Kraft], and he needed someone to roll with the new change and build a new team. So I came over here and brought some of my old dogs from Aviary. 

417: Why did you decide to focus on traditional Italian dishes? 

B.B.: Nonna’s has been around for a while, and the traditional comfort food of pasta bowls is great but Shawn and I felt like we were missing out in putting out nicer stuff. The other stuff was nice, but [we wanted] to go a little bit further. The customers have been enjoying it, so it fuels us to take something that is traditional Italian and, I wouldn’t say put an Ozark spin on it, but make it friendly. [Kraft] wanted to bring me on to elevate [the food]. And we’re doing 100 percent scratch in the kitchen now from desserts to pasta. You name it. 

417: What do you want people to know who are coming in to eat? 

B.B.: Folks who are coming in are getting 100 percent [from] scratch ingredients and some of the best cooks in town are preparing it. And having someone [who doesn’t care] put together a plate and having someone who lives for it and breathes it put together a plate, it makes a difference. I think it’s a good place for folks to try something new but still be able to get classic Italian cuisine. Shawn goes to Italy, and I’m getting ready to go with him in February to do a little bit of research. 

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