We were walking toward Noni's Italian Deli and Bar (357 Edgewood Ave., 404-915-8679), across from the Executive Car Wash where the staff was spit-shining cars and pumping loud music.
A woman, perhaps 45, dressed in soiled white hot pants and a blond wig askew on her head staggered by us, mumbling.
Wayne turned and said, "Aww, that was sweet. Did you hear her?"
I told him I had.
"It's not every day a stranger says, 'How you doin', darlin','" he said.
"Wayne," I corrected him, "she was drunk and she said, 'How about a dollar?'"
Which goes to show that if you carry the right attitude and hearing, you won't mind the rather picturesque folks wandering about this stretch of Edgewood Avenue, four or five blocks west of Boulevard. In any case, owner Matt Rupert has hired a black-clad security man who can protect you from panhandlers in hot pants. Honestly, I find the surroundings entertaining and, in any case, there's parking behind the new restaurant. Look for the driveway on the west side of the building.
Fair disclosure requires that I report that I've known Matt for some years. In fact, he was our server at Cava when we had a knock-down-drag-out battle about remodeling Unabomber Acres, our mountain casita. Matt's the co-founder of the Big Gay Supper Club and he recently completed a master's degree in French. He's a very talented, funny and smart young guy. My recollection is that he also plays piano. Maybe he can perform as Noni's lounge lizard as well as its owner and chef.
"Noni" is Italian for grandmother and the restaurant is devoted to his own noni. There are family pictures in the restaurant, which is an airy, well-lit space with lots of wood and brick. There's a huge bar, comfortable for eating as well as drinking.
I've been for lunch and dinner. Both times, I ate outside on the pleasant patio, which includes a fountain, and where you can watch someone pick basil for your caprese salad.
I think whenever I know a restaurateur, I overcompensate by becoming overly critical in my review. Some things I found problematic at Noni's were utterly no problem to Wayne and other people whose opinions I trust. In any case, this is a first look and not a definitive review.
The menu is small, featuring antipasti, sandwiches (including grilled panini) and mix-and-match pastas and sauces. Probably my favorite dish at the restaurant so far is the starter of fresh peas with shaved pecorino and a little oil. The bowl's substantial number of thin-sliced onions took me by surprise, however. I pulled them out, feeling they were a bit overwhelming for the subtle English peas. Others will like the onions, of course.
The caprese salad, featuring the hand-picked basil, included better-than-average tomatoes and average buffalo mozzarella. Seriously, I've become something of a nazi about this cheese, and nobody satisfies me. I might add that the dish included some balsamic vinegar, which Elisa Gambino of Via Elisa considers a serious violation of authenticity. (See our Omnivore blog.) Nonetheless, I run into its use on this salad a lot.
A fritto misto plate, featuring fried squash and eggplant, presented no controversy. Pickled vegetables, primarily cauliflower, are good to accompany entrees and sandwiches or another antipasta.
We tried two sandwiches and the best was the BLT, substituting arugula for lettuce and aioli for mayo. It's made with ciabatta. All sandwiches come with a choice of orzo pasta salad or chips. You can pay $2 extra and get minestrone soup or Caesar salad, my choice.
The other sandwich was a muffuletta, the New Orleans favorite featuring Sicilian flavors. Discussing a muffuletta is like discussing barbecue: Everyone has a different opinion. Mine and Matt's are quite different. You'll have to judge for yourself.
The main thing is the bread. "Muffuletta" actually refers to a certain type of oval Italian-style bread. I don't know if you can even buy it in Atlanta, but a sandwich made without it isn't really a muffuletta, is it? Matt is serving it on focaccia. It's a neat presentation, but I feel the bread is too oily for its contents. I want the contrast of the dry muffuletta bun. Also, the sandwich contains too much meat for my taste. It's the right meat and cheese, but it overwhelms the olive salad, which, I'll add, is too finely chopped. The meat was also cold. It should always be room temperature.
Matt protests that he always finds muffulettas short on meat and the bread too heavy. This latter complaint is something I've heard from many friends about Parish's more authentic version, so I'll yield that point. All of this is a lot of complaining about a sandwich that tastes pretty damn good.
We tried two pasta dishes. I chose the homemade tagliatelle with puttanesca and some local fennel sausage. The basic price is $8; you pay extra for the sausage and homemade pasta. I'm one of those people who tends to favor dry spaghetti. Homemade pasta, unless it's perfect, tends to adhere into a massive clump. Noni's pasta is flavorful and tender. The puttanesca sauce was spicy and quite reduced. I'm not sure if adding a bit more liquid or oil to it might keep the pasta from clinging less (although it certainly didn't adhere into a ball).
Wayne ordered farfalle with a simple lemon-anchovy sauce. He couldn't stop raving.
We ordered the two desserts available, tiramisu and cannoli. Neither of us is fond of cannoli, so I'm not passing judgment there. "They're as good as they ever are," Wayne said. The tiramisu was weirdly missing its layer of coffee, so the characteristic bitterness was completely absent. If it's added, the dessert will be likable.
What else? There's a vintage jukebox, which can make you miserable or happy. Overall, I love the feel of the place and I'm reminding myself that the food is dirt cheap, so it's not reasonable to expect perfection. The staff is super-friendly.
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