October 7, 2012

Introducing The Nana Test: A New Way to Review Italian Restaurants

Some of my all-time favorite meals were at my grandmother’s for home-cooked Italian food. She sets the standard for any Italian meal I eat. Her sauce is just incredible and it is the reason I started licking my plate clean at a young age. Don’t even get me started on her pasta aioli.

Even more important than the actual meal, though, was the environment. Her cooking brought the family together and embedded in us the importance food has in creating positive memories and traditions. They are the foundation of our blog and the prism through which we look at the Philadelphia food scene.

This city and its suburbs are lucky enough to have a long list of cultural restaurants that could remind any of us of our grandmothers' cooking. It’s one reason why a series of posts on Italian restaurants has long been a goal of ours.

The struggle has been to come up with the right way to evaluate them. The perfect idea hit me like a rolling pin to my head while cooking my own pasta the other week: The Nana Test.

The Nana Test consists of five elements that best describe meals my family shared at my Nana's house. We will focus primarily on BYOBs, each graded according to these five criteria and given an overall score between 1 and 5 (5 being the best).

1. Atmosphere. My family's meals are anything but fine dining. You need to bring a megaphone just to be  heard. No, we're not looking for places that are loud, but we do want conversation and a relaxed atmosphere that creates a fun experience.

2. Simplicity: Last February we heard Anthony Bourdain speak live, and he commented that many Italian places try to overcook and mess up good simple food. Couldn't agree more. We'll be looking to see if the restaurants can wow us with the simplest dishes like pasta with meatballs or ravioli.

3. The Sauce. Come to our family meals and you will witness the rotation of people dipping bread into the red sauce (gravy) while it simmers. It's the meal before the meal. Without the foundation of a tasty red sauce the meal is likely to disappoint.

4. Antipasti. A good antipasti puts everyone in right mood as people pick at and share meats, cheeses, peppers, etc. We're looking for quality charcuterie, a variety of cheeses, tomatoes, fresh roasted peppers and olives. No fake stuff or filler like iceberg lettuce.

5. Serving size and bread. No skimping. Bread should plentiful and we should not have to beg for more. And a big portion would make my grandmother smile. She never let me go without three or four servings.

For Three Bonus Points: The secret sambuca test. At the end of the night, we'll ask for a shot of sambuca to close the meal. A BYOB with this or another apertif on hand to settle our stuffed stomachs will best resemble meals with my family.

Please let us know which restaurants in Philly and the surrounding 'burbs we should visit and tell us your own fun tests to grade the places that remind you of your family's food traditions, Italian or otherwise. Maybe we'll add one.

Let's eat! (taken at Monsu)

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