Every city neighborhood needs a great little spot where locals can gather for a friendly, casual nosh. Riverwest’s Nessun Dorma is just such a place. There are no pretensions at this charming little storefront café – it’s a neighborhood joint in the best sense possible.
We hit the place with a gaggle of gays on a Friday night and only had to wait as long as it took to push a couple of tables together. Our server Talia handed us our menus with a smile, memorized our drink orders and hustled off to get things started. When she returned mere moments later with every drink perfectly placed, I was impressed. I’ve been to five-star places where the service wasn’t as efficient.
As we perused the menu we grazed on an enormous bowl of olives. The large portion, priced at $8, included red and black Bella de Cerignola, green Castelvetrano and tart Nicoise tossed in a fresh vinaigrette with capers. A cheese plate would be a nice add-on for this appetizer, which would easily serve eight to 10.
The menu isn’t vast – a half dozen sandwiches, a couple of daily soups, a salad or two and a daily entrée special (roast duck on the night of our visit). It still took a while to decide, not only because queens do everything but look at the menu when they sit down, but also because everything sounded so yummy. Most of us kicked off our meal with a spicy corn and red pepper chowder. The vegetarian treat was priced at $2.50 for a “cup,” which anywhere else would have been a bowl.
In the end, the majority of us decided on sandwiches. The “Puccini” is thinly sliced beef tenderloin with capicolla (a spicy cross between salami and Canadian bacon) topped with sautéed peppers and onions, provolone and piled atop Kalamata olive tapanade-laden Tuscan-style country bread. The “Formaggio” is an Italian grilled cheese on steroids. Fresh mozzarella, provolone and fontinella cheeses are topped with roasted sweet red peppers nestled between thick slices of Asiago ciabatta. The fresh basil pesto mayo slathered on the bread made this comfort food for any nationality.
The true test of a panini eatery is an Italian deli combo. Nessun’s version passed with flying colors. Genoa salami, capicolla and pepperoni is alternated in layers with provolone on a seeded deli loaf and augmented simply with roasted sweet red peppers and a mild giardinara relish.
One of the most body-conscious of our group passed on the carb-heavy treats and opted for a Caesar salad of chopped romaine presented in a large bowl coated with grated romano and fontinella cheeses, lightly dressed in a lemony Caesar dressing. The salad was so good that he actually broke down and tasted a couple of the house-made croutons.
None of us are big beer drinkers, but for those who are the nearly 100 strong beer menu, eight of them on draught, is vast in scope. Wine choices include 35 by the glass and more than 100 by the bottle, many priced at $25 or less. We all enjoyed the quality and generous portions of our wine selections.
In the end, we fed five hungry guys for $100, and that included a hefty tip for our fabulous server Talia, who recommended Leon’s Drive-In when we asked for an ice cream suggestion – but that’s another story.