HALFMOON — There could be any number of reasons Capital Region residents visit Nonna Maria's Italian Kitchen during the restaurant's dinner-exclusive hours—the large portions that come fresh and hot out of the kitchen, the relatively low prices, or the fact that, upon walking into the unassuming restaurant wedged in a strip mall on Route 9 in Halfmoon, customers get the feeling that they're coming home.
Owner and executive chef Gerry Cunsolo, 60, opened Nonna Maria's doors in 2015. Prior to that, he owned Chef's Take Out in Guilderland for 11 years. But he's been spinning pizza dough since he was a teenager in Italy. Born in Calabria, Cunsolo eventually traveled to the United States with his family in the 1970s to join his grandfather in Troy.
Over the decades, he spent time cooking in many local, deeply loved Italian kitchens until he finally ventured out on his own to start his own business. The front counter of the restaurant is decorated by statues and other items that have been gifted to Cunsolo over the years, both by former co-workers as well as customers.
Besides his prep chef who arrives at the restaurant early in the morning, Cunsolo is often the first person there by 8 a.m., and the last person to leave, at 11 p.m. Those long hours are necessary, he said, if Nonna Maria's is to maintain the reputation it has established as being the place for fresh and homemade Italian food.
Cunsolo goes out of his way to avoid what he describes as "formula chefs", chefs who are able to ship out many orders of the same dishes quickly, aiming for quantity of food over quality. The key to his cooking, he said, is putting his passion into each dish.
Nonna Maria's seafood dish.
"Everything is made to order. We make our own bread. This type of cooking is fading away," Cunsolo said when interviewed at his restaurant.
Cunsolo's first prep chef comes in during the morning, and then another prep chef comes in during the afternoon. Prior to when the restaurant opens its doors at 3 p.m., fresh ingredients, including fish, are also received each day. When the restaurant opens, its Cunsolo and his small staff, which includes his three daughters and wife at times, working to get the food out to the dining room that seats 50.
The menu at Nonna Maria's is extensive: appetizers include calamari, fresh clams or a more traditional side of meatballs or sweet Italian sausage.
Meals come with a soup or salad, and main dishes range from pastas, and a large number of veal, chicken, seafood or beef options. There are also gluten-free and vegetarian options. They also make their own breadcrumbs and have many shelves of low priced but sought-after wine to go with the meals that are served.
Dishes range in price from $15 to $22, but the portions are large. The restaurant also does takeout orders, and caters events. In order to make sure take out food stays hot until picked up, Nonna Maria's wraps all of thefood andd distributes it in aluminum containers.
The inside of Nonna Maria's Italian Kitchen is warmly decorated and meant to emulate the inside of one's home. The kitchen is clearly visible from the dining room, and Cunsolo said dinner guests regularly interact with him and his staff, whether its customers stopping by the kitchen to say hello, or its him venturing out into the dining room to mingle with customers and check in during their meals.
He tries to make the dining out experience go further than a serving taking an order and bringing food, and to do that a business owner must know their clientele on a personal level.
"We feel comfortable here. We feel like we're in Aunt Lucy's living room. That's what we hear from customers. We build a big relationship with people. We know them by name. It's like home here," he said.
New customers are enticed into Nonna Maria's mostly through glowing reviews found on mobile phone apps including Trip Advisor or Yelp.
Clientele is a mix of returning customers and the friends and family members that they bring, people who happen to be passing by and people who are visiting town, either from out of state or elsewhere. Once inside the restaurant, Cunsolo said people only need to try the food to see that the good reviews are warranted.
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"My food speaks for itself," he said.
He also knows that running a small business is a constantly changing and growing battle, and that he needs to be at 100 percent at all times to stay on top of things. But since he started flipping pizzas when he was 14, Cunsolo said, he has been up for the challenge. For him, the fact that his passion is in Nonna Maria's is what will keep moving it forward.
"The key in life is effort. To do it right, we need to do it with flavor. It's about the love," he said.