The heady scent of spring lilacs was replaced by the complex aroma of Italian cooking as we entered the door of Nonna Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Halfmoon.
“Garlic,” I sighed.
Choosing a table by the windows, Gail and I glanced around the medium-size room painted pale mustard and trimmed with dark wood. The kitchen was open to view from two sides.
It takes confidence to expose a kitchen to the public. Confidence in cleanliness, order and language (heat in a commercial kitchen is rarely produced solely from the stove).
Most of the dozen or so tables were occupied. Despite Sinatra crooning in the background, our conversation was not hampered.
Nonna Maria’s Italian Kitchen
WHERE: 1505 Route 9, Halfmoon. 952-7201, nonnamariasitaliankitchen.com
WHEN: 3 p.m.-close, Tuesday-Sunday
HOW MUCH: $56.85 before wine, tax or tip
MORE INFO: accessible, parking lot in front, take-out, all major credit cards accepted
Server Daniella appeared almost immediately, menus and a small bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in hand. She watched intently as the chef visited some of the tables.
“That’s my dad, Gerry,” she said proudly.
A family portrait was emerging. Mom Michelle was hostessing and sister Gianna manned the counter, overseeing the register, the phone and take-out orders. Third daughter Marissa was not working the evening we visited.
Nonna Maria’s Italian Kitchen is a family enterprise, not a cookie cutter establishment — a mom and pop place in the truest sense of the phrase.
Daniella delivered a basket of warm house-made garlic bread to the table. We ordered the artichoke hearts with lemon cream sauce ($11.95) which arrived piping hot in record time.
Nibbling on our lightly breaded artichokes, we studied the menu: soup, specialty salads, pasta, veal, chicken, seafood, beef and eggplant Parmigiana.
Gail ordered one of the evening’s specials, Pork Loin Mustardo ($20.95) while I opted for the Seafood Pescatora ($23.95) from the regular menu, requesting that it be prepared without calamari.
Our dinners came with soup or salad. I order the (red) pasta e fagioli, which was not overwhelmed by tomatoes, while the white beans and ditolini were in perfect balance with garlic and Italian herbs.
And hot! No dish at Nonna Maria’s that was supposed to be hot was lukewarm. I’m offended by food that is not served at the proper temperature. It bespeaks either poor service or sloppy kitchen practices — or both.
Daniella explained that all salad dressings were house-made. Gail chose balsamic vinaigrette for her fresh salad of mixed greens, black olives, cucumbers, red onions and toasted croutons.
At some point after gracious Daniella had checked on us, Gail commented, “I feel as if they are welcoming us into their home.”
My seafood dish arrived with a flourish and a chorus of “ahhhs.” The giant bowl of haddock, large shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari had been simmered in a white wine sauce with basil and other Italian herbs and was served over linguini.
But the pasta was invisible, buried beneath the ocean of seafood. I identified large chunks of garlic in the pomodoro sauce, sweet and not too pungent. My only complaint: The calamari had hidden in the bowl with the linguini, so I plucked them out one at a time.
Gail reported her pork special was superb — several thick slices of pork tenderloin surrounded by a moat of sage tinted honey mustard sauce, and nicely balanced in color, texture and flavor by artichoke hearts and asparagus spears. A bowl of al dente penne pasta went home with Gail nearly intact.
As the remainder of our dinners was being wrapped, Gail and I glanced at the dessert list ranging from cannoli ($3.25) to tiramisu ($5.25). “Next time,” we nodded simultaneously.
After the end of a fine meal, it’s not about the decor, or location, or how large the parking lot is. It is always about the food and the service.
“From the heart,” Chef Geraldo smiled as we stood up to leave.
Ditalini, Italian for “small fingers,” is also called tubettini. As the name suggests, it is a type of pasta that is shaped like small tubes. It has been described as “thimble-sized” and “very short macaroni.” Ditalini is often the pasta used in pasta e fagioli — pasta and beans.