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Forgettable fodder

Nona's Kitchen suffers from culinary Alzheimer's

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Before I launch into a critique of the 15-month-old, fledgling establishment that is Nona's Kitchen, let me say that I was unable to give the restaurant a second chance to improve upon my first impressions. Let me further defend Nona's Kitchen by pointing out that "nona," in Italian, means grandmother. And this nona Italiana, while having lost her touch, still hasn't lost her quirky charm. Like a doddering matriarch, the décor was inconsistent, even a little incoherent. A different chandelier twinkled above every table, and the more formal dining room contrasted with the folksy wicker rocking chairs populating the foyer. Supermarket flowers stewed in dirty vases; a homely piece of ceramic crockery matched nothing. For a primi, or first course, the chef prepared an antipasto of spinach and arugula greens tossed with créme fraiche (a kind of grits made of bulgar wheat, pine nuts, walnuts and parsley), shrimp grilled two ways -- butterflied and prosciutto-wrapped and a side of thinly shaved potato chips. Although clearly a hospitable gesture, the primi was the most disappointing course of the entire meal. The shrimp was overcooked, salty and dry. The potato chips had been flash-fried in olive oil and desperately needed salt. The bulgar wheat dish had more than a hint of soy, and contained all the salt (and then some) that was missing from the chips.

By this time, I was gaining a fuller understanding of my waitress whom, with her flippant attitude, seemed more interested in one of the line chefs than my gastronomical well being. When she did trouble herself to visit my table, she forgot to ask the second most important question in the server guidebook (the first being "May I take your order?") and never once asked me whether the chef had in fact succeeded in pleasing my palate. Alas, she did remember the first question, and she waited through my order of Bucatini Alla Vodka and Pizza Romana kindly enough.

While the bucatini was a good southern Italian comfort food, the pizza was largely flavorless and otherwise greasy. The bucatini -- a hollow egg pasta -- was served with a tomato sauce carbo-rich in sausage, peas and carrots. Again, the ingredients were less than fresh, so instead of adding a spicy punch to the dish, the sausage's main flavors were grease and starch. The pizza was topped with caramelized onions, red potatoes, whole cloves of garlic, mozzarella and a sauce I could see but not taste. The crust was thin, but not crisp, having instead the texture of a soggy tortilla. The only seasoning that I detected in the two dishes, besides salt and garlic, was parsley (which sustained Karen Carpenter, or so I hear, for quite some time).

And, lest I perish from lack of food, I followed all this up with an incorrectly-frothed latté (Coffee jockeys take note: a latté is characterized by three distinct layers: steamed milk, espresso, and froth on top.) and a dolci, or dessert. Needless to say, the zeppole were overdone, and I found myself dipping the crisp, blackened donut holes in grade A honey instead of the orange glaze sauce that had tempted me. Although I resolve to give Nona's Kitchen a second chance, like a promise to visit an ailing grandparent, it's not likely to happen any time soon.

Nona's Kitchen, 3365 Piedmont Road. 404-261-1312. Open Mon.-Fri. 11:30-2:30 p.m., Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. Cash, credit and local checks accepted.

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