Chesterfield’s Best Kept SecretI’d never heard of Paul Manno’s before being assigned to review it. After asking around, it seemed that people had either never heard of the Italian eatery or had not only heard of it, but raved about it. “You have to get the Nonna’s pasta,” they’d say. “But, it’s not on the menu; you need to call the day before so they can start making it.” Or, “Oh yeah, my parents go there all the time; they love it.”
Baffled by how such a praised restaurant could rest so far below the radar, I made a Tuesday night reservation, headed down Woods Mill Road and pulled into the non-descript strip mall that the 15-year-old restaurant calls home.
I entered into a smallish vestibule, the walls paved with photos of celebrities and sports stars who have walked through the very same door. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, a charming dining room came into focus. Sparkling lights here and there cast a glow over the white table linens, as prints of Sinatra and other Italian idols peered at me from the walls.
For a Tuesday night, the place was packed. We had to wait for our table, prompting a trip to the small bar toward the back of the dining room, a martini and a little menu perusing. To my surprise, the aforementioned Campanelle de Nonna was actually on the menu – and no longer a myth.
So we ordered it, and it was delicious and worth the $18 price tag. One of the lovelier pasta shapes, campanelle, or “bell,” is fluted with a ruffled edge, ideal for cupping the heady sauce of white wine and chicken stock, with a touch of Bolognese for added body. The dish also has tender cannellini beans, spinach, and sweet and spicy morsels of sausage. The sauce is perfectly absorbed into the campanelle, clinging to the little nooks, not merely drowning them. The seasoning is right on. The pasta is al dente. The leftovers are just as good.
Another house specialty worth the drive, wait and calories is the cannelloni de casa. Here, the Bolognese takes center stage. That’s not to say that the savory, salty meat filling wrapped in pleasantly firm pasta isn’t great. It is. But one look at the Bolognese sauce, and I knew I’d found a reason for return visits. Traditionally, this meat sauce consists of tomatoes and ground beef, veal, pork or lamb. Some are more thin and tomato-heavy, others prepared with aromatics like carrots and celery. More, still, are enhanced with a pour of heavy cream – a final touch, which elevates the simple sauce into something luxurious and swoon-worthy. Paul Manno’s adds cream – enough said.
But first, the starters. Parmigiano-Reggiano served sliced with a dish of honey is an unexpected and simple ode to salty and sweet. The hard cheese is crumbly and delicate to handle, but I’d have preferred thinner shavings to the thicker chunks.
A heap of roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella are drizzled liberally with a thick, sweet and tangy aged balsamic. Fresh basil grounds the sweet, rich and acidic flavors. This dish would be ideal for sharing, as it’s a lot for one – both on the plate and on the palate.
The tomato, anchovy and red onion salad is also a bold, perhaps overwhelming, way to kick off dinner. A tamer salad is the house, with the requisite sweet and zingy Italian dressing, artichoke hearts and grated Parm.
A special of Florida grouper was firm and fresh, steamed and resting on a sauce of tomatoes, white wine, seafood stock, herbs and plump cherry tomatoes. Very good. Veal Saltimbocca lacked the herbal aroma and flavor of sage but was otherwise fine, pounded thin and layered with salty prosciutto and mild fontina.
Rather than the cannoli, opt for the tiramisu. Creamy and tender, scented with nutty almonds and topped with fresh strawberries, it’s rich and fragrant.
The wait staff at Paul Manno’s is gracious and personable. The wine list matches the menu, with a plethora of expected (though slightly high-priced) Italian and California wines. Book your table early to avoid being put into the dreaded reservation at 5 or 9 p.m. It’s a tip coveted by the regulars – and one utterly unknown to those who have never been. I’m thankful to now officially be in the first camp. And for the Bolognese.
Campanelle de Nonna
The heady white wine sauce, kissed with a touch of Bolognese, clings to each little nook of the fluted al dente noodles. Tender cannellini beans, spinach and sweet and spicy sausage round out this perfectly seasoned bowl of carb-laden comfort.
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