If you haven’t eaten in a restaurant in the last two years, you may have forgotten how loud it can get out there; so cacophonous, in fact, that an online search instantly turns up articles carrying headlines such as, "Why are restaurants so noisy?," "Restaurants are too freaking loud" and — ooh, doesn’t this sound appetizing? — "Can’t hear your dinner date? How noisy restaurants may be harming your health."
Then there is Little Nana’s Italian Kitchen at 810 Beverley St., where the first thing you notice after slipping into one of the 58-seat resto’s wooden dining booths, each of which is fully enclosed on three sides, is that there is zero need to shout to be heard.
Sandra Romani, a professional interior designer who owns Little Nana’s with her property-manager husband Mike, says affording customers an appreciable level of privacy was definitely a goal of theirs, when they began entertaining the thought of becoming restaurateurs, a little over three years ago.
"Whenever our family went to an open-concept restaurant, we’d go home feeling like we’d just had dinner with everybody else in the room," she says, pointing out the wood used for the booths, as stunning as they are functional, is 100-year-old pine, stained dark after being reclaimed from a building that was purportedly haunted.
"If we were going to have a place of our own, we definitely wanted it to be somewhere people could enjoy their meal without having to say, ‘What?’ or ‘Pardon me?’ all night long."
Sandra, whose grandparents immigrated to Canada from Calabria, Italy in the early 1950s, chuckles, saying her fellow Italians may not enjoy reading this, but she and Mike, whose ancestors hail from Pesaro, further to the north, met at the age of 16, when both worked at Olive Garden, near Polo Park.
That’s definitely not the sort of establishment her cousins or mother, whom she describes as a stellar cook, would have frequented, she says, turning a question around with, "What do you think?" when asked whether there was ever a can of Chef Boyardee in the pantry while she was growing up.
"No, I was that typical, Italian kid who went to grade school with a thermos of coffee and a veal cutlet for lunch. My friends would take out their leftover KD and, because we never, ever had that at home, I’d be all, ‘Do you wanna trade?’ which they always seemed happy to do."
In 2009 the Romanis, parents of two, purchased a three-storey apartment block near Health Sciences Centre as an investment property. There was a take-out restaurant on the main level facing Notre Dame Avenue run by a person who prepared Jamaican fare, rotis and such. The room was sparsely decorated at best but Sandra remembers her husband commenting immediately that it would be an ideal spot for an old-fashioned, Italian restaurant, one day.
A different eatery eventually moved in. When its owners announced in early 2019 they would be vacating the premises, Sandra and Mike agreed rather than go hunting for a new tenant, they should act on what he had proposed years earlier, by opening a place of their own.
First things first, they needed a name. Sandra grew up referring to her grandmother as "Nana." That eventually got switched to "Big Nana," to differentiate between her and Sandra’s own mother, Giovanna Giardino, whom her grandchildren, Sandra and Mike’s kids, commenced to call "Little Nana." (While Little Nana is a fitting tag — Giardino currently tips the scales at 82 pounds or so — Big Nana didn’t really live up to her billing; she was a shade under five feet tall and 100 pounds "soaking wet," Sandra says with a smile.)
So yes, dubbing their restaurant Little Nana’s Italian Kitchen was a bit of a no-brainer, she continues, especially since almost all the recipes they were planning to use were ones Giardino, 76, had perfected through the years, in the comfort of her own abode.
Mind you, nothing was written down, so when the Romanis hired Dann Ignacio to be their head chef, he and Giardino were forced to put their heads together, and formulate proper measurements so everything would be consistent. What turned out to be especially great, Sandra adds, is because Ignacio, who previously cooked in New York and Los Angeles, is Filipino, put his own spin on some of her mother’s creations, using spices or techniques Giardino never considered.
Following eight months of renovations, Little Nana’s welcomed its first guests in December 2019. As word spread, particularly in regards to the overly generous portions (while no official statistics exist, Sandra believes fewer than a dozen people thus far have managed to polish off their serving of pasta in a single siting), it became commonplace to eye lineups out the door, or be forced to wait a couple weeks for a reservation.
"We’d only been open a little less than three months before we had to close because of COVID, but during that time we’d already built up a pretty steady clientele, including a fair number of regulars who’d been coming from as far as Oakbank twice a week, for lunch or dinner, or both," Sandra says.
Little Nana’s remained open for takeout only in the early days of the pandemic. If there was a silver lining to be found, it was their idea to offer online Italian cooking classes, during which participants were taught how to prepare favourites such as gnocchi or risotto from scratch, using ingredients dropped off at their doorstep. The classes enabled them to keep a few staff members on the payroll but they were by no means a calculated move; instead, they were more a case of when life gives you lemons, make limoncello.
A cousin of Sandra’s arrived from Italy for a visit in late January 2020. She had planned to return home at some point in March but was unable to, owing to COVID-related restrictions. She missed her husband and kids terribly, Sandra says, so to brighten her days, they started the online cooking classes together in early April, with her cousin explaining what to do in Italian, while she translated the instructions into English.
The classes proved so popular that even after her cousin was finally able to go home in June 2020, the Romanis kept them going. The latest was a month ago, with a portion of the proceeds going to Madox’s Warriors, a charity named for a Winnipeg boy who lost his fight with cancer in 2014.
Menu-wise, now that restrictions have been fully lifted, diners can once again dive into the sort of fare they’d expect to find at an authentic, Italian ristorante, namely, thin-crust pizza, pasta pescatore and spaghetti bolognese. Additionally, there are a number of rotating specialties such as cacio e pepe, described in an online review as an "inexplicable creamy, fiery masterpiece" and, for anybody who wants to channel their inner Ernest Hemingway, spada, or grilled swordfish.
"We’re always tweaking the menu and though certain selections might sound… exotic, they’re really not," Sandra says. "Italian food, at least in the south, was originally peasant food that rarely contained more than five ingredients. We always say if you can’t taste a certain something, it’s because it’s not there to begin with."
Sandra and Mike remain committed to their outside jobs, and aren’t always able to be at the restaurant as much as either would like. They do take turns hosting and serving as often as possible, which should prepare them well for another endeavour they’re cooking up.
"We’re currently having a home built in the south of Italy, and our retirement dream is to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast, where we can offer cooking classes for guests. We both love to entertain, we both enjoy being in the kitchen so yeah, you’ll have to make sure to come visit us there, as well."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.