Two First Dates: Ristorante Nanà and L’Officina
The score: Let’s just say that some need a second date to win you over, and some you know are the love of your life before you even get to dessert.
You know when your best girlfriend has been trying to set you up with this friend of hers for years and all she does is talk him up and drop little hints into every conversation and mention that he still happens to be single after every one of your breakups and so finally, though you never go on blind dates on principle, you give in and call the guy? And he sounds really nice on the phone, so you say, Sure, Saturday night is fine. And the date starts really well: he brings you peonies, which are your favorite flowers, suggests this really lovely rooftop bar to watch the sunset, orders two Gin and Tonics without having to ask, and you get settled in thinking, Hey, this could work.
Then things go downhill. Fast.
His favorite movie is Titanic. He would never visit Morocco because he’s heard it’s dirty. If Sarah Palin’s only two constituencies are the Religious Right and Fans of Comedy, you are both constituents though you belong to the latter group and he, you are beginning to strongly suspect, the former. And just when you are thinking that the evening has been a total wash and you would have had much more fun hanging out on the couch in your Slanket with a glass of Merlot and the first season of Glee and are thinking of the tongue-lashing your girlfriend is going to get the next morning for setting you up with this loser, the most amazing man walks into the bar. The. Most. Amazing. Man. And Mr. Loser looks up and says, Oh, hey, there’s my brother.
And that’s how you meet your husband.
Corso Cavour, 202
Okay, now translate that all into restaurants. My dear friend, Letizia, whose food opinion I respect and trust, had been talking up Nanà for ages. Ages, I say. So many ages that I kept putting off actually going to Nanà because I wanted to save it for a special occasion, which just happened to be a friend’s 40 birthday. And it started off wonderfully: the restaurant is a charming retrofitted salone signorile (an airy surprise after you pass through the narrow corridor entrance), the proprietors (a family of father, mother, daughter, son-in-law) were warm and we started the meal with a long chit-chat about local wineries, the menu was limited but promising and the wine list had some of my favorite Umbrian cantine. Even the appetizers boded well; I had a light leek and truffle flan with cheese sauce which was perfect in every leeky/truffley/cheesey way.
Then things went downhill. Fast.
Our pasta dishes were mediocre. And I really wanted them to be good, because it was like being on a blind date with your friend’s friend and you want to like him so you can bring back a positive report to your friend, who you know is waiting by the phone for a play-by-play when you get home. But it just wasn’t happening. They were bland, slightly overcooked, and mean portions (and I say this from an Italian portion point of view, not an I-must-have-enough-to-take-home-in-a-doggie-bag-so-I-can-microwave-it-at-the-office-tomorrow-for-lunch portion point of view.) Our plates had five potato/truffle ravioli on them. We were tempted to check the floor to see if some had slid off on the trip from the kitchen.
Our meat dish (venison) was inedible. I am cringing to say it, because one of my cardinal review rules is: if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t review the restaurant, but it’s the truth. We left it virtually untouched (and they, very graciously, took it off the bill later). And the salt they forgot to put in the pasta water was on the artichokes. Wow, pass the water.
They rallied at dessert (I had their nice little traditional bread pudding, which I haven’t had in years and it was a little dry but still nice and cinnamon-y. My friend had their warm chocolate pudding cake, and was very satisfied. So was I, since I ate half of it.)
Despite having had a lukewarm first date with Nanà I am still writing it up. Why? Well, for one I feel like this restaurant deserves the benefit of the doubt. The proprietors are so welcoming, passionate, and obviously put a lot of care into their service–my gut feeling is that we just stopped in on an off night, which is a shame but happens. I am going to give them a shot at a second date, and we’ll see what happens. For better or for worse, you will all know about it. For two, as I was writing this article I skyped my friend, who, as it turns out, has much more charitable memories of our meal than I do. So perhaps I’m just being too demanding. And, for three, the night we went to Nanà is the night I discovered my New Favorite Place in Perugia, aka L’Officina.
Borgo XX Giugno, 56
As we were walking down the street towards Nanà, we passed a small dimly lit doorway a couple of blocks away and I said, Is that a store? And my friend said, No, it’s a great little restaurant. I’ve eaten there a couple of times. Fabulous food.
So awhile later we went back to this funky space, part art gallery, part restaurant, part left wing social revolution headquarters (just kidding…but it does kind of have that vibe). From outside, the small doorway seems to lead to some sort of used bookstore or second-hand furniture shop, but it’s the original architectural details from when the building was a workshop for building and calibrating scales—including the turn of the century wooden floor–which give it the ex-industrial-loft feel. But following the stairs towards the back you find yourself in a larger room (crammed with tables, European-style. Not the place to stage a break-up. Just in case you are reading restaurant reviews looking for the perfect place to stage a break-up.) with artwork covering the walls (they host rotating shows of local artists) and the kitchen behind a glass partition.
The service was rather perfunctory (nothing bugs me more than when you ask your waiter about a dish, and they have to check with the kitchen because they don’t know what’s in it. Folks, that sort of research should happen in the ten minutes you open for dinner, not when you’ve got people already seated. And, while I’m bitching, no use having an encyclopedic wine list if half the choices aren’t available. Ok, I’m done.), but the food was, simply put, amazing. Now, let me warn you that this is definitely nouveau-Italian. If you are looking for classic Umbrian dishes, this may not be the place for you. But if you’ve had your fill of strangozzi al tartufo and are in the mood for a meal that pushes the envelope in a delightful way, you’ve hit the jackpot. The descriptions of the dishes go on for a paragraph, the presentation is whimsical (my friend had ravioli in red sauce served in a Margarita glass), and the ingredients quirky and original.
I had carob tagliatelle tossed with arugula and almond pesto and a delicious creme brulée with Madagascar vanilla bean, both of which were memorable and left me feeling happily in love with this place. But the real winner of the meal was the tasting menu, comprised of a seemingly endless procession of tapas-sized samples –appetizers, first and second course selections, and dessert–each paired with a different wine. A wonderful way to try this restaurant’s innovative cooking without commiting yourself to any one menu choice, and at €25, the price was more than fair.
All told, I am very much looking forward to my second date with L’Officina (perhaps this winter, to check out their seasonal menu changes) and a long and happily committed relationship. But I may just have a little fling on the side with Nanà. You never know.
Expect your meal with wine to run between €50 and €75 for two at both of these restaurants.