First Taste: Nonna's
I take my eggplant Parmesan very seriously. Need I remind you about the come-to-Jesus moment I had upon eating a recent eggplant Parm sub in Chicago? It's a food I hold especially near and dear to my heart, so I flip at the chance to try a new version when they pop up around town. It doesn't happen very often, you see, so I have to be vigilant. One newcomer to the eggplant Parmesan scene is Nonna's, an Italian sandwich and sundries shop in the West Loop that serves as a casual grab-and-go offshoot of Formento's right next door. I was curious and eager to see how my beloved eggplant Parm would fare in the hands of the venerable restaurant group behind The Bristol and Balena, as opposed to the deli-like counter spots I would typically frequent to get my fix. Here's how it all went down.
Nonna's is a slick, shiny, and beautiful interpretation of a casual Italian sandwich counter. The space is meticulously polished and warmly welcoming, from each expertly arranged shelf to the glistening smile of the robotically happy cashier. It's a well manufactured and highly ordered process, for sure, a far cry from the loud and jumbled melee commonly associated with more frantic spots like Bari, which endears for all its old-world charm and sass. This is the anti-Bari, not in the sense that it flies in the face of old-world Italian tradition, but more so in that it elevates each and every component, curating a cheery, smooth atmosphere on par with Disney World. But instead of rides, there's marinara sauce and ciabatta bread.
The menu is as diminutive as the space, with only a handful of sandwich options, sides, and desserts to sate you as you perch yourself at one of the few counter stools or prepare to takeaway (as most people do). Much of the menu real estate is devoted to Italian sandwich classics, like meatball subs, chicken Parmesan, and of course eggplant Parmesan. There's also more original fare like a tripe sandwich and a mortadella hot dog, but I'll leave that for another time. Let's get right into it: on the whole, I didn't enjoy Nonna's eggplant Parm as much as I enjoy the eggplant Parm at more casual spots like Bari and Dough Bros. It's not that the sandwich was so elevated it got "fancy"; on the contrary, Nonna's does a nice job preserving the essence of the sandwich. My quibbles are merely to do with important culinary details that form the foundation of the sandwich. The eggplant was slightly burned and bitter, two aggressive notes that dominated each bite. Also, ciabatta is an odd choice for eggplant Parm (it's also used for other sandwiches). I appreciate a good, fresh baked ciabatta as much as anyone, but in an application pertaining to saucy, sloppy, and delicate innards such as this, ciabatta is too unruly and messy. The crackly, tough bread smooshes everything too much, forcing ingredients outside the sandwich and making it too difficult to eat. The chicken Parm fared much better, as chicken can stand up better against tough bread than soft eggplant, and in general I really liked the chicken Parm sandwich while my eggplant was just passable.
I'm eager to get back to Nonna's to try more of their menu, especially some of the awesome-looking desserts. This place has real promise, and fills a handy niche in Chicago that I can appreciate. I'll just have to reserve my eggplant cravings where they belong: at old-school Italian deli counters.
- Matt Kirouac