The old and the young: Rediscovering Nino's, dining with a nino

After a trip to the restroom at Nino's (1931 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-6505), I mentioned to Wayne that the hallway there is decorated with pictures of Italy's Cinque Terre, where we spent a week some years ago.

"That was so beautiful, the light, the sea. Italy!" he began, indulging his habit of turning the beautiful into postcards.

"Yeah, but Italy has a history of fascism, beginning with the caesars. Very militaristic," I snapped, hoping to tear the verbal postcard he was writing in the air into pieces. A woman at a neighboring table glared at me.

"No, no," he said. "Politics is what happens to people. The Italians themselves are not that way. Think of 'caesar' as meaning 'seizer.' The caesars seized power. The Italians just kept cooking and eating. Remember what they did to Mussolini. They hung him from a meat hook. And his girlfriend too."

"They literally impaled him on a meat hook," I repeated. "How like the Italians to turn him into cured meat."

"No, no," Wayne replied. "Impaling is very different. When they impaled people they inserted a rod through the anus all the way to the mouth. A good impaler avoided puncturing the heart and lungs in order to prolong the life and pain of the victim."

"Oh," I said, looking at the old-fashioned skewer-like bread sticks the waiter had just deposited on the table.

"I learned about impaling the first day of my world history class," he explained. "I'll have a glass of the house white. What are the specials?" he asked the waiter.

How is it I've never been to Nino's before? Opened in 1968 by Antonio Noviello, Nino's is, according to its menu, the city's oldest Italian restaurant. I've been to its neighbor, Alfredo's, many times and certain comparisons are inevitable. Both feature old-style Southern Italian cooking. Both are in gussied-up but fundamentally unattractive buildings on a street that has mysteriously eluded gentrification despite its proximity to Midtown.

Of the two, though, Nino's appears to have stayed more contemporary and authentic. The servers in tuxedo pants and shirts are a bit comically recherche, but dining on an early autumn night on its patio decorated with vines and the summer's last impatiens (illuminated by the restaurant's red-neon sign) was quite pleasant, especially because the food turned out to be damn good.

The menu is gigantic. There are plenty of antipasti, like bresaola with arugula ($8.50), sauteed mussels in marinara ($8) and, Wayne's choice, grilled shrimp over sauteed spinach ($8). I confess I found the spinach a bit watery, dribbling it on my shirt in fact, but the generous serving of well-grilled shrimp totally redeemed the dish.

An alternative to the antipasti is a half-order of any pasta on the menu ($8.75, $10.50 for those with seafood). Do it, or just blow your diet and add the half-order to your starter and entree. The gnocchi is fab. The little potato dumplings are bordering on over-cooked but, having eaten way too many rubbery gnocchi in our city, I give Nino's tender version under a cream-splashed meat sauce a definite thumbs up. I also sampled spaghetti with a light marinara -- available as a side with any entree -- and found it almost perfect.

I know I'm not supposed to be eating veal. Please don't -- as happened some years ago -- plant posters of miserable veal calves in my front yard. I know I'm going to be force-fed milk and caged in hell for all eternity for ordering the restaurant's saltimbocca ($19). But, Lord, what a version Nino's serves. The veal is velvety and tender, sauteed in butter and wine, seasoned with fresh sage and topped with prosciutto. It's one of the best versions I've encountered in our city, probably because it's kept simple. There's no cheese and it's not cooked rolled up.

Wayne ordered a special, simple red snapper, well grilled and served with some potatoes, broccoli and carrots ($22). It was mildly seasoned with garlic and olive oil -- "lovely," to quote Wayne.

We were quite full and could not face the old-style dessert cart the restaurant rolls around the dining room, but I spotted tiramisu and cheesecake on it.

Mr. Noviello is from Italy's Amalfi Coast. In recent years we've all become understandably enamored of Tuscan fare, most of us having burned out on the New York-style versions of Southern Italian cooking that we grew up eating. But this charming and surprisingly good restaurant deserves more attention, especially when you're in the mood for the comfort of good pasta.

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