This is the one we have been waiting for: a rustic yet beautiful Italian restaurant with a kitchen that turns out some of the most honest, authentic food in the city.
When former Genoa chef-owner Cathy Whims, her partner David West, and Mark and Deb Accuardi (owners of Gino's) recently traveled to Piedmont and Tuscany, night after night they ate in homey restaurants specializing in the kind of handcrafted pizzas, juicy roasts and casseroles that they always wanted to cook. No cuisine lends itself to integrity and clarity as much as Italian. The time-honored dishes of the countryside—dishes slow-simmered in terra-cotta pots or cooked quickly in 800-degree ovens—are what we always seem to hunger for.
The quartet's new restaurant, Nostrana—whose name means both "homegrown" and "our place"—satisfies such antique yet contemporary cravings. Housed in a former grocery store with 25-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings, Nostrana features acres of warm wood against walls of glass, a woodshed piled high with firewood inside the spacious yet cozy room, and a tiled, wood-fired pizza oven brought from Italy.
Pizzas ($8-$13) are center stage at Nostrana. They're thin as a silver dollar, with smoky charred crusts that blossom forth with fresh flavors, whether the ingredients are chanterelles, Fontina Val d'Aosta, sweet Gorgonzola, or clams and mussels in their shells. They don't cut the pies: You get a wicked-looking knife or, better, pull them apart for a hands-on experience.
But Nostrana is no pizza parlor. Cold meats come from Seattle's Salumi, where superchef Mario Batali's father, Armandino, produces such wonders as mole sausage made with cinnamon and chocolate. Whims serves them with her peach chutney and mouth-popping pickled cherries ($8, $11). Avocado sardine toast ($6.50), a surprising combination, makes for outstanding bruschetta; while Nostrana, which maintains a strong farmer connection, serves an antipasto of Ayers Creek's creamy, wood-oven-baked corona beans and luscious chunks of tuna belly ($7).
Although Whims can turn out a dish as elegant as a Ferragamo bag, Nostrana coaxes intense flavors from humble ingredients. In the rotisserie, they do a terrific spit-roasted porchetta ($16), a classic flank steak ($15) grilled with nothing more than olive oil and arugula, a succulent chicken ($16) slow-roasted with crackling skin and sautéed potatoes and porcini bread salsa, and a skewer of plump lamb and plumper lamb sausage ($14) rubbed to a shine with fresh sage. Whims anticipates serving less expensive and neglected but flavorful cuts of meat, even the innards of pig.
Fancy is not better. But a restaurant like Nostrana, whose dishes express the culture of a people and their tradition, is. A Tuscan oven doesn't hurt, either.
Nostrana, 1401 SE Morrison St., 234-2427. 11:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.