[Sidebar] January 8 - 15, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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Nonna Cherubina

Comfort food any Italian grandma would be proud to serve

by Bill Rodriguez

2317 West Shore Road, Warwick
Open Tues -Sat, 5 to 10 p.m.
Sun, 3:30 to 9 p.m.
Major credit cards
No handicapped access

When somebody in Rhode Island says they just discovered a restaurant you'll really like, sheer statistical likelihood makes it a safe bet to ask, How's their tiramisu? Numbers alone should suggest asking about the General Tsao's chicken. (There are 79 Chinese restaurants in the Providence Yellow Pages.) But this isn't San Francisco or lower Manhattan, so it's the Italian eateries (36 listed) that the local population latches onto like wolves upon fat stragglers. Not for nuthin' is calamari the state appetizer.

Nonna Cherubina is Italian for "little, angelic grandmother," which is quite the ambitious role model for the so-named Warwick restaurant. Yet this image captures its ambiance as well as its offerings, which can be thought of as northern Italian comfort food.

Apparently gone is the day when the main reason for presenting that region's cuisine on this side of the Atlantic was to yank the national culinary flag from the hands of southern Italian restaurant proprietors. Remember when all northern Italian restaurants acted as though red on a plate was like a cockroach in the kitchen? Well, Nonna Cherubina reveals what we suspected all along: at home and curtains drawn, northerners like a good tomato sauce as much as any Neapolitan.

In fact, walking into the restaurant was like entering a home. It was previously a residence, and tables fill what was once the living and dining rooms. Intimate, low light, red baby carnations on the tables, a small post-New Year's Eve Christmas tree on a wall table. We were the first diners of the night, and our hostess jokingly apologized for the polka coming from the speakers. (At least the kitchen's secret work music isn't industrial-trance. In short order, Connie Francis was warbling "Mama" and Vic Damone was crooning "Volare.")

Our hostess/waitress was the charming and maternal Iva Sabaini. She is co-owner of Nonna Cherubina with Stefania Gualtiero, who was away doing culinary research in Italy, and Gianluigi Guidetti, who was in the kitchen. Usually, all three take turns with both kitchen and dining-room duties, which makes so much sense. Why burn out with either task when you can get variety and empathy by swapping?

When you begin to realize that nobody's Italian grandma ever served calamari, you'll get an idea of the appetizers here. In addition to pizzas, they run to simple mixtures, such as I Bisi di Venezia ($5.35) -- sautéed peas with onions and pancetta. We chose Frizon della Nonna ($5.15), which is like a vegetarian stew of potatoes, onions, and bell peppers in a well-herbed tomato sauce.

Other than the menu's pastas (which technically are not entrées) and the seafood served over pasta, the main dishes are listed with suggested side dishes. Be warned, then, that since the chicken starts at $13 and the veal at $16, this practice drives the meat dishes out of the moderate range.

I chose the Pollo Garibaldi ($12.95), with the suggested complement of timballo and sautéed spinach ($4.95). The split and pounded chicken breast was pronounced "melt-in-your-mouth" by my dining partner but on the dry side by me, because of its thinness. The timballo is a lasagne-like portion of baked pasta, with red sauce on top but a dreamy béchamel sauce layered within. The spinach, which also is available as an appetizer, is cooked with egg and parmesan, an appreciated addition.

Across from me, my companion enthusiastically enjoyed the Sogliola Ricca ($16.95). Sampling as frequently as I could get away with, I concurred with her opinion. The filet of sole was lightly battered and sautéed in olive oil, with fettucine beneath. What was described as "a creamy sauce of olives, garlic, and parsley" served as the final topping. Don't think Alfredo, though, since the delicious topping, full of flavorful black olives, was a tomato sauce rendered orange by a splash of cream.

When it came time for desert, the tiramisu looked good, but we settled on the Chocolate Profiterol ($5.25) -- three pastry puffs filled with vanilla custard and slathered with icing-thick chocolate mousse. It tasted as sinful as it sounds. Who says Sicilians have more fun?

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