Flavor: It’s all about the red sauce
Ambiance: Laid-back (surprise!)
The first time I dined at Nona Mia, I was stunned by the number of people lining up to claim their takeout pies. I figured these folks had pulled into the Patton Avenue strip mall—which also houses a counter-service Chinese joint and a Blockbuster video store—assuming the Wing Stop chain still laid claim to the storefront now occupied by the sit-down Italian restaurant, shrugged at the switch and decided to make it a pizza night.
Turns out their orders were borne not from ignorance, but from an enviable knowledge of where to find some of the city’s best artisan pies. Nona Mia makes remarkably good pizza that—while not quite the equal of the eponymous dish at West First Wood-Fired Pizza in Hendersonville, which sets the bar for superlative bakehouse pies in Western North Carolina—should satisfy anyone.
These are serious pizzas, the sort which call for a corkscrew rather than a bottle opener. Each oblong herbed crust is piled with garlicky tomato sauce, mounds of tangy mozzarella and toppings including a fennel-studded Italian sausage, roasted olives and carmelized onions. The ingredients take a moment to set upon their canvas: Fresh from the oven, the pie resembles nothing so much as stew in a crust frame. Yet another reason those in the know order their pizzas to go.
But the pie’s glory emerges in minutes, with the pizza taking on a marvelous three-dimensional shape. The bronzed cheese blankets a series of crust-riven peaks and valleys that leave the dish looking something like a grade-schooler’s geology project. Yet the taste is terrifically sophisticated, with the zesty sauce and charred crust conspiring to form a nearly perfect pie.
It’s no wonder Nona Mia makes great pizza: The new restaurant is owned by Peter Affatato, late of 28806 Deli, Bakery and Caterers, the evolving West Asheville eatery that built its reputation on house-baked breads. What’s harder to decipher is why Nona Mia is making anything else, since the remainder of its menu can be somewhat lackluster.
One of the great things about West First is its well-edited menu, which doesn’t attempt to distract diners from its handmade pizzas and pastas with pedestrian versions of Italian-American standards like eggplant parmesan and chicken vesuvius. Nona Mia has taken another tack, issuing a two dozen-plus item menu of sandwiches, baked pasta dishes, entree-sized salads and fish. (The menu reminds me of the “before” photos appended to wardrobe-makeover stories in fashion magazines, in which the misguided dresser has played up her just-average cleavage when she should have been highlighting her mile-long legs. Nona Mia has one great feature, and really ought to flaunt it.)
Instead, the restaurant has positioned itself as an “Italian-American soul food kitchen,” a descriptor that suggests make-do food—which, in the case of all nonpizza entrees I sampled, is unfortunately accurate.
Good bread usually means good pasta, but there’s nothing special about the penne and bow ties coming from Nona Mia’s kitchen. (If the noodles used in the Chicken & Spinach Bow Tie didn’t come from a box, I’ll eat my reporter’s notebook.) The bow ties were done just shy of al dente, and tossed with shredded basil and overcooked chicken in an uninspired preparation. While the menu promised fresh spinach, onions and roasted tomatoes, I couldn’t find any vegetables in the watery pesto broth. Even the server who had heartily recommended the dish must have recognized its flaws: As soon as he placed the bowl on the table, he offered to bring me a cupful of parmesan cheese. “It will really help,” he promised.
A few dishes went even further wayward, including an overcheesed and undersauced lasagne featuring thick slabs of bland mozzarella dripping with ricotta. Chicken piccata, submerged in a sea of capers, was done in by too much salt. Nona Mia’s kitchen seems perpetually flummoxed by vegetables, relying on bagged greens for its insalata mista and turning its lemony fried zucchini appetizer (mozzarella sticks retrofitted for the farmer’s market crowd) into an immersion course in salty breading.
Most of the other dishes I tried were passable, including an acceptably prepared chicken parm and a nicely sauced spaghetti with meatballs. The meatballs reappeared alongside hunks of sausage in a savory penne with Sunday gravy; while the meatballs were too mushy for my taste, the sausage was well-seasoned. Still, the meats and sauces couldn’t disguise the sub-par pasta. And on that particular visit, no server appeared to offer us shredded parm, the universal fix for Italian-American dishes.
The service is friendly but often chaotic. On each of my visits, we had a parade of servers, none of whom seemed quite sure about what they were there to do. Some of the mistakes were excusable—a server poured wine for two of my male guests and an empty chair before filling my glass and then left his corkscrew on our table; another failed to bring silverware even after the food had arrived—while others bordered on bizarre. On one visit I requested water, and the server delivered instead a tall glass of ice. “That will be water soon,” he promised.
Fortunately, you don’t need to concern yourself with Nona Mia’s problems. Have a seat on the patio, order a pizza and a $13 bottle of surprisingly good house chianti, and watch the Patton Avenue traffic go by. Or, as so many come-and-go fans have learned, it’s just as well to call ahead for takeout.