This restaurant roamin’ journey reached new heights last week, as I made the trek up Signal Mountain in search of a little bit of Italy. Sicilian-born Nino Piccolo and his family run Nino’s Italian Restaurant, which claims to serve authentic Italian dishes from Nino’s Sicilian culinary experience-beginning in 1994. Thus, as I reached the top of the mountain, I was hoping to find a Mount Etna-esque eruption of Sicilian flavors.
720 Mississippi Ave.
Signal Mountain, TN 37377
11 a.m.-9 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Atmosphere and service
Walking up to the restaurant, I was impressed with the outdoor patio dining area lined with brightly colored foliage and flowers. The inside of the restaurant had large windows in the front, which also displayed the outdoor vegetation and let in natural light to the restaurant’s relatively low interior lighting. This was a comfortable ambiance, and the checkered tablecloths added a nice touch.
I arrived at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and was immediately greeted and seated. Shortly after I arrived, the restaurant started to fill up rapidly. My server had a charming, bubbly personality, and her great service never waned throughout the evening, even as she gained more tables. My food arrived in a timely manner as well.
Nino was hanging out in the dining area during part of the evening, talking to patrons. He talked to several parties, sometimes for a while, but didn’t make it to my table before we were finished with our meal.
The restaurant has no website or current online menu. Some older menus I found online had much lower pricing-by a drastic margin-than their current menu (dishes currently run about $10-$15). The menu mostly consists of pasta and pizza with a few other dishes, and they offer a few wine selections but also allow parties to bring their own for a $5 corkage fee.
Freshly baked bread was served with the meal, along with Nino’s own housemade whipped butter. This butter was a soft, silky mix, perfectly spreadable on the warm bread slices (a second loaf is $1.50 extra). This dreamy blend certainly buttered me up for the forthcoming dishes.
I had a half-order of the bruschetta ($4.95/$8.25), which was the same house-baked bread topped with a tomato salad and shredded mozzarella. The good quality of this bread made a nice toasted base to the olive oil, freshly chopped basil leaves and diced tomatoes smothered in melted cheese and sprinkled with oregano.
I also tried their pizza Margherita ($10.25)-a pizza type I’ve previously discussed. Although this was supposed to be a traditional Neapolitan pie-named after Queen Margherita of Savoy-this 12-inch pie was far from traditional.
The traditional pizza Margherita is made with olive oil, diced tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and soft, fresh, traditional mozzarella slices-the bruschetta toppings were closer to the Margherita ingredients than this. At an Italian restaurant in this price range, I expected fresh mozzarella, especially on the pizza Margherita.
This was basically your typical cheese pizza with shredded mozzarella and sprinkled with oregano. It was a soft, thin-crust style, and the flavor of the dough and lightly sweet pizza sauce wasn’t bad. There just wasn’t anything special about this pizza, especially when claiming to be a Margherita pie-one of my favorite kinds of pizza when done correctly.
I went for half-orders with each of the pasta dishes to cut down on the prices. These half-portions were still a good size and plenty for a meal, especially when coupled with an appetizer or salad-salads are no longer free with dishes and now cost $1.95 extra.
The first pasta I sampled was the “funghi bianchi” ($8.95/$14.75), which had a cream and butter sauce with mushrooms and sautéed onions over penne pasta. The earthy flavors of mushrooms spread well through fat, which is why they work so well when cooked in cream-based sauces and soups. This dish was no exception, as the sauce had a strong mushroom flavor coating the al dente penne. It was a good, simple, straightforwardly flavored dish.
However, the flavors of the next dish, the $8.95/$14.95 “nonna” (grandma’s pasta), were far from simple, and this was my favorite dish of the evening. This rigatoni was covered in a tomato-based sauce with roasted red peppers, pancetta, capers and caramelized onions, with a dash of cream and butter.
The piquant, pungent flavor of the capers added a nicely bitter tang to the tomato sauce, with the cured pancetta bacon adding a porky element. The onions and peppers added even more of a kick to each bite, with the cream and butter fattening up the flavors. This was a strongly flavored dish hearkening back to Nino’s Sicilian roots-and one that I highly recommend.
I had my heart set on their housemade gelato but, unfortunately, it wasn’t available. My server recommended the chocolate mousse ($5.50), so I went for that instead. This was a delightful, light mousse, with a similar silky consistency to their housemade whipped butter. This airy chocolate treat was a delightful end to this meal.
I am giving Nino’s Italian Restaurant 2 stars. Although much of the food had some major high points with very good service and a comfortable atmosphere, this climb up Signal Mountain was anticlimactic overall for the prices-especially with add-on charges for salad and extra bread. I’d return to eat there if I were in the area but just don’t think I’d make a special trip up the mountain for it.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or Facebook and Twitter, or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.