tiramisu.jpgIf there’s any question about the Darwinian nature of restaurant ownership, look to the brutal natural selection of 420 Mendocino Avenue. In three years, five restaurants have occupied the space. Four have gone the way of the dinosaur and dodo — to no one’s great surprise — quickly facing extinction after problems with staff, management and/or the kitchen.  Which makes it all the more surprising that anyone would want to take over the space in these already troubled economic times.

Never question the power of a nonni to turn things around.
Borrowing the familiar term for “grandmother” in Italian*, Nonni’s Ristorante Italiano is welcoming gun shy diners from the neighborhood to the table with comforting Italian classics — a fall-off-the-bone Osso Bucco (veal shanks), veal piccata, Bolognase lasagna, and risotto. All homemade, long-simmered and served up with the care and love of an Italian grandmother — or at least a couple of Italian cousins.

Local businesswoman Karine Pollastrini deftly handles the front of the house while her Italian-born cousin Marilena Forte has commandeered the kitchen with her well-tested family recipes. Not that there isn’t some serious experimentation still going on to get things just right — like the addition of a little blue cheese to the polenta “just for a little extra flavor” and days of trying to get the Osso Bucco just right. But clearly there’s a solid foundation.

nonni2.jpgThe vibe of the space, though still oddly long and narrow, gets a personal touch with family photos, fresh flowers (Karine owns a floral shop) and new wall decor. Sinatra plays the background track to your meal, though Karine says that her uncle comes in an plays accordion on the weekend. Upstairs has been revamped to feel less like an outland and more like a cozy private retreat.

Best bets: BiteClub’s continues to daydream about the pillowy homemade gorgonzola gnocchi ($13.95) for days. Lightly fried Calamari Friiti ($8.95) beg for a side of Uncle Tony’s famous tartar sauce; carpaccio ($9.95) is brilliantly done and the refreshing Insalata Cesare ($7.95) is plenty for two to share.

During lunch, Nonni’s switches out meatier fare for panini sandwiches, though all the pastas remain on the menu. Don’t miss the Mostaccioli con suga di Maile, slow cooked braised pork with sweet, tangy tomato sauce and, of course, the Osso Bucco (which isn’t always on the menu), a massive veal shank bathed in a red wine sauce over polenta. At the risk of sounding like a food geek, the kitchen’s brunoise on the veggies (a precise chop) speaks volumes to the type of investment being put into the dishes. Not to mention the warm, fresh focaccia.

Though you’ll be tempted not to, pace yourself. Portions are enormous, but missing dessert is not an option. The menu changes up daily, though BiteClub hopes that tiramisu will become a standard — made fresh with mascarpone, spongy cake, espresso and Madera. Also great was Sunday night’s caramel bread pudding. The wine list is balanced between good, large-production local wines and Italian bottles, with a nice by-the-glass list.

Whether Nonni’s can ultimately evolve into a permanent fixture in the downtown dining scene is to be seen. Meanwhile, you’ll find BiteClub pondering the question over a plate of gnocchi.

Nonni’s Ristorante Italiano, 420 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.527.0222. nonnis-ristorante.com

*There’s some debate on whether it’s true Italian. Some say Nonni means grandparents, and nonna, grandmother. Let yourself stop being too literal and embrace, in this case, that it’s a loving term for grandmother.