Thursday, April 25, 2024

FIRST LOOK: Long Beach’s Nonna Mercato takes on brunch in Bixby Knolls

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I’ve long said that Nonna Mercato—the brainchild of Chef Cameron Slaugh and Steve Massis, the team behind the overwhelmingly delectable turnaround of The Attic, who had long dreamed of opening a bakery after Slaugh’s bread-making gymnastics was overwhelming the kitchen there—is space is where the practical meets culinary romanticism.

And the longtime dream of what Nonna could be—that it could create an Italian-with-a-hint-of-French space that mimics the off-the-street charm of the countries’ stellar sidewalk dining scene—has taken a large step forward after a year since their opening: They are about to open the front patio space to its first set of brunch diners.

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The chitarra with Dungeness crab and guanciale from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.

Diving into his Italian heritage—Nonna, after all, was supposed to be named after his own Italian grandmother, Diana Ginelli—Slaugh has created a menu that, indeed, does depend a lot on the food of Italy but also harkens to the French and Californian bistros that depend on fresh, seasonal fare.

Like his insanely perfected panzanella—a staple for any Italian household, in America or otherwise—where stale bread chunks are turned into crouton-like chunks via a healthy dousing of olive oil and salt before being crisped and tossed in a vinaigrette. Paired with nothing more than heirloom tomatoes and basil, Slaugh’s version is likely the closest they’ll find to, well, their nonna’s take on the classic.

The meatball appetizer served with stracciatella cheese. Photo by Brian Addison.
The meatball appetizer served with stracciatella cheese. Photo by Brian Addison.

“I wanted to create food that is comforting,” Slaugh said. “The food I grew up with my own nonna cooking: handmade pastas, hearty salads made with stuff from the garden—like my chitarra: I roll that by hand; it isn’t made with a machine.”

The chitarra he speaks of—an umami-meets-savory bomb of Dungeness crab and guanciale with the subtle heat of Calabrian chile—is one of five hand-made pasta dishes that anchor the space’s inaugural brunch menu, in addition to some Italian-meets-French-meets-American offerings the lean toward the classic brunch.

The panzanella salad from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.
The panzanella salad from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.

And yes, there is a stellar French omelette that gives a tip of the hat toward Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s famed Boursin cheese omelette. And yes, there is a great steak frites that deviates from its version at The Attic—thinner fries, different beef cut, béarnaise sauce…

Yes, these are stereotypically “French”—and yes, these are good if not outright great offerings… But Slaugh’s strengths are best exemplified when he openly embraces both his overall Italian heritage and, whether it was intended or not, his family’s roots in Colma, one of Italy’s northernmost spaces, brushing shoulders with the Austrian and Swiss borders, and, more toward the west, Italy’s tête-à-tête with France. It is a space of Italy—and the north of Italy in general—which largely deviates from the south because of its approximations to spaces which appreciate the rich: creams, stuffed meats, butter…

The torchietti with preserved lemon and green chickpeas from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.
The torchietti with preserved lemon and green chickpeas from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.

Perhaps this symbiosis is no better expressed than through Slaugh’s torchietti, the coiled pasta that he wraps in a creamy, citrusy concoction where layers of mint, green chickpeas, and preserved lemon—which provides a beautiful, Moroccan bite that could be unfamiliar if you’ve been sadly dismissed from the Mediterranean-North African-Levantine staple—combine to create a dish that, surely, when the time comes, it will be gone.

“We have one case of those chickpeas from our farmer,” Slaugh said. “And of course, we can create a variation but there’s something special about those ceci verde.”

Creamy, earthy, acidic, savory as hell with that perfect hint of bitter from the preserved lemon and mint, it is a dish many a traditional Southern Italians might scoff but should be proud to co-own with their French neighbors.

The "Croque Seniora," a croissant-based, taleggio-inspired play on the Croque Madame from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.
The “Croque Seniora,” a croissant-based, taleggio-inspired play on the Croque Madame from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.

Then there’s outright blatant odes to the French and Italian, with Slaugh’s tongue-in-cheek “Croque Seniora,” where a play on the famed Croque Madam uses a croissant—yes, very French—but then throws in a taleggio béchamel sauce that would surely frown the brow of a fundamental French gastronomist.

But fear not, filled Frenchman: This wonderful ode to one of the best French culinary inventions harbors everything you love about the original—yolky, creamy, milky, buttery, ham-y—with the weighted salt of taleggio and the crispy, layered lamination of a croissant.

Nonna 30947A pair of spritzes from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.
A pair of spritzes from Nonna Mercato. Photo by Brian Addison.

The play between the French and Italian even come in witty spritzes, like the “Nonna vs. Grand-mère” spritz where prosecco and a lillet blanc aperitif are blended to make the Italians and French happily kiss cheeks.

And, as I mentioned, there are just outright Italian classics done right: stellar meatballs paired with a dollop of stracciatella (the cheese, not the ice cream or soup) and grilled bread. A solid malfalda bolognese. And, though not Italian, likely the city’s best caesar salad. (Shout out to Tijuana.)

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Nonna Mercato's ceasar salad. Photo by Brian Addison.
Nonna Mercato’s ceasar salad. Photo by Brian Addison.

But the real beauty of it is all is that it is food Slaugh would happily serve inside his home. While some may find it to be the missing “bistro” card for Bixby Knolls—and, indeed, it is; it is a wildly welcomed brunch option that isn’t weekends-only—and others not know the man serving you even comes from an Italian heritage, there is a comfort to his food that if you take it it all without much thought, you’ll find yourself immersed in food as much as the conversation.

Because the food is that warming.

Pink flowers (when Nonna’s trees are blooming) fall. Coffee and absurdly crafted sweets are easily available on top of the savory dishes. There is, yes, the hum of traffic but it rarely becomes interruptible outside the occasional asshole who wants to use his stick shift in the name of compensation.

But otherwise, in the words of the Italians: “Dolce far niente.”

Nonna Mercato is located at 3722 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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