The Provincialism of I Nonni

Before I use the Italian restaurant I Nonni as a convenient whipping boy, it’s only fair to offer a juicy morsel of praise. A recent meal there was not really a meal at all — it was a dining experience, in the classic sense. The serene patio — certainly one of the most tranquil and downright enchanting in the area — overlooks a series of small man-made waterfalls and a large but humble country-style garden. No traffic noise was audible; the only smell was that of summer. The food ranged from good (a Tuscan-style steak that was solid, but not of Manny’s caliber) to outstanding, including an ahi tuna pesce crudo with bell peppers and olive oil that must chart among the best dishes of its kind made within 250 miles.

Service was professional — unobtrusive, knowledgeable, friendly without fawning. The whole event lasted more than two hours, and was, in value terms, a super deal at about $60 a person including tip.

Now, on to the whipping.

For all the embrace of terroir and Midwestern pride that marks places like Corner Table, Red Stag, and Birchwood Cafe, there is an idea that lingers in the air around here like a mildew-covered ghost. It’s the idea that if you really want to live it up, you’d better import your food and drink from somewhere fashionable.

Sometimes, this isn’t a terrible thing. Certainly, the coasts have much to show us in terms of fish… and cold-hardy grapes notwithstanding, we’re not living in wine country. In the middle of winter, we’re not going to be eating much local produce, and much of our fruit will come from California, if not further away. Scotch comes from Scotland.

Becca Dilley
Becca Dilley

But here is something we do well in the Upper Midwest: beer. Stack the right Surly, or Summit, or Lift Bridge (above), or Furthermore, or any number of local craft brews against anything made anywhere in the country, and you will understand: These are good beers. Not simply good beers for the Midwest, but good beers in the sense that you can like them — love them, even — and defend your opinion empirically against the relentless tastemakers who judge this stuff professionally.

And local beer is something I Nonni doesn’t carry. You can get a Stella (boring), or a Peroni (mind-blowingly boring), or a Tetley’s English Ale, which is what I did. The Tetley’s also was boring, not even measuring up to the passably decent Boddington’s to which the waiter compared it. A Summit EPA or Lift Bridge Farm Girl would both have been equally genial and easy to drink, but with the additional virtue of being delicious and standing for something.

And, as noted earlier, locally made.

We make good artisan beer, right here in the Upper Midwest. There’s no excuse for not offering at least one solid local beer, regardless of how high-class your restaurant may be — in fact, the higher class your restaurant, the more you should grasp the marketing and moral appeal of supporting someone who’s laboring passionately — around the corner! — to make a world-class brew.

But there’s this ingrained idea that the meal isn’t special — it isn’t fancy — if you’re drinking locally. Somehow offering Stella Artois, one of the safest, dullest macro-craft brews available, is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but taking advantage of the brilliant work going on right next door is a sign of slumming it.

I hit this same beer roadblock while dining at Fugaise, and also at its successor, The Butcher Block. No beer more local than Goose Island (Chicago)! (In defense of The Butcher Block, it was opening week. Hopefully they’ve dealt with the situation.)

A similar provincialism defined I Nonni’s cheese selection. I asked about the cheese plate, curious to hear whether Midwestern terroir might crop up. Our waiter listed three cheeses, without noting their place of origin or maker. Not a great sign.

“Is all of your cheese imported?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s all imported,” said the waiter, proud of the fact.

Becca Dilley / The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin
Becca Dilley / The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin

Fool! Damn fool! You’re living a gouda’s throw from Wisconsin — which regularly wins more international cheese medals than entire European cheese-producing nations — and you’re proud of the fact that you’re shipping stuff over from Italy at great cost!

Let’s pause for a moment.

I Nonni is a high-end Italian restaurant, and if they choose to serve imported Italian cheese, that certainly fits the mandate. But why not offer two imports… and a sweet, nutty, aged parmesan-style SarVecchio made in Antigo, Wisconsin? Or two imports and a creamy, tangy, almost buttermilk-like crescenza stracchino from BelGioioso, near Green Bay? Or an American Grana, by the same company? I’ve talked to Gianni Toffolon (right), the master cheesemaker at BelGioioso. He was born and raised in Italy, trained by Italian cheesemakers, and is incredibly serious and passionate about what he does. He, too, earns medals, and deserves them. Serve his cheese, and you honor Italy and the Upper Midwest, all at once.

Cheese, sausage, honey, beer — fresh produce in the summer, wild game, chickens, and beef and ice cream and butter — we are living in a gastronomic paradise. Sophistication isn’t defined by ignoring that fact — it’s defined by embracing it.

There’s a simple thing that all of us, as diners, can do. When we order a beer, or cheese, or sausage at a restaurant, we can ask where it’s from. And if it’s not from around here — ask why not. A couple years and a couple hundred evangelists should be all its takes to alert every high-end restaurant in the area to what true sophistication is all about.


  1. BrianJ

    Amen. This is a constant gripe of mine at nice restaurants.

    I get so frustrated to go to a nice restaurant and be presented with a 20 page book of wine offerings and a tap list of Bud, Stella and Heineken.

    A restaurant doesn’t have to have a beer list like the Happy Gnome or Stub and Herb’s to have a good selection. They just need a half dozen thoughtfully selected taps.

    How about a Schell Pilsner, Schell Stout, Summit EPA, Surly Cynic and one tap each for a rotating Surly and Summit seasonal. With just six taps representing three local breweries you can offer something to pair with any dish.

    I realize owners would worry that they’d offend the Bud/Stella/Heineken crowd but why should they? They don’t worry about offending the Franzia/Boone’s Farm crowd do they?

  2. ryanol

    wow I tend to think of myself as quite a beer fan, I regularly sample the wares at four firkins and drink all styles of beer and guess what I consistently order; Stella. It is trendy but at least it’s not in the hop-lessly trendy IPA ridiculously expensive genre. Its a clean beer that i find is a great palatte or backdrop for almost any food. Sure I love surly furious and cynic but their flavor profiles are much stronger and would all but drown most midwestern fare(minnesota hot anyone?)

  3. HungryinSW

    I think this article raises a few really good points to ponder. I love I Nonni because it evokes so many fond memories of wonderful meals that I have enjoyed across the ocean. I love craft/local/micro brews and even volunteer for a local brewer, but I have to say, the thought of ordering a beer at I Nonni never crossed my mind even though I out-drink wine 10-1 with beer. I’d always defer to wine in a situation like I Nonni, and although a restaurant should endeavor to make all their customers happy, I’m willing to guess that beer is a relatively small percentage of their sales and fetches no where near the margins they secure with a bottle of wine and thus fetches far less of their attention.

    Now, obviously there is the question of all the other components such as cheeses etc, and it is a shame that they do not take advantage of the bounty of quality local goods we have here. I Nonni (I know this is just one example to a larger issue) is an occasions dinning experience for me personally. The other 50-65 times I eat out a year, I’d prefer to belly up with a good local brew and let it complement the fruits of all of our awesome local food producers. I’d be really interested to hear what others think – thanks to the Heavytable for opening up the discussion!

  4. eek!

    Hear hear. I am so sick of great restaurants (Alma and La Belle Vie) with crappy beer selection. Like was said before, miles of wines, martinis and now non-alcholic drinks. but all the beers are safe. The food is not though. Lets expaned our taste buds in all aspects of the meal.

    And of course we have some of the best beer in the country, lets highlight that.

  5. ForbiddenDonut

    Right on. There is no excuse to have a trashy beer list. You don’t even have to offer it on draft. A beer list with a dozen offerings will pair with anything on the menu and not take up very much space in the cellar. Also, educate your staff so they know what they’re selling.

    Also, I think the locavore concept can be taken a little too far sometimes. There are some foods that we do well here, and some that we have no business attempting. It’s great to promote quality local foods and ingredients, but we’re very fortunate to have access to a great range of products. I was at a restaurant in St. Paul recently, and the cheese plate consisted of three very similar cows milk selections. It’s great that they’re local but it’s too bad that we had to sacrifice quality and variety. Provincialism can take many forms.

  6. Hillcrest

    First off, screw I nonni for screwing over Filippo Caffari.

    Secondly, the worst offender in the “Otherwise Great, but Shitty Beer Selection” category is none other than La Belle Vie, IMHO the best restuarant in town.

    Given their highly touted cocktail and wine programs, you would think they would offer quite the beer selection. But we sat in the lounge last weekend (with a beer-only fanatic in the group) and all we could get beyond the basics (you know the routine…bud and/or miller, bud and/or miller lite, heineken, amstel, maybe stella or newcastle) was a Bells 2 Hearted. Weak.

    And lastly, screw I nonni for screwing over Filippo Caffari.

  7. Moe

    Amen. This is something else that other cities do well. Go to any restaurant or bar in KC and you will find a Boulevard on tap. There is no reason, other than ignorance, that local beers are not available, or even highlighted at all great restaurants in town.

  8. Adam Platt

    Beyond the beer issue, which is cut and dried and clearly a function of restaurateur neglect, I think James’s post raises a challenging question, which is what is the role of the locavore ethos in restaurants whose purpose is to deliver a culinary experience as close as possible to eating in another land? (The ironies are interesting, because there are few countries where local and seasonal eating remains as preeminent as Italy, nor is there a western country that is as loudly provincial about the quality or essentialness of local recipes and foodstuffs.)

    But just because it is local doesn’t make it good, though more importantly, it doesn’t make it equivalent to what’s being flown in. (For purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring the environmental issues with shipping food all over the globe.) I don’t think Chippewa Water tastes like Pellegrino. California-grown Italian varietals cannot evoke the Italian terroir in Italian wine. Nor can even the vaunted masters at Clancey’s cure pork in a way which replicates the acclaimed Spanish jamons. I am more put off if Figlio or Palomino is ignoring local options, since they are merely trying to evoke global themes. But a restaurant like i Nonni, which is intent on precisely recreating the food of another place, I would give a wide berth.

    I disagree that we are living in a gastronomic paradise, Surly Furious notwithstanding, but we have come a long way. I’m not sure that shaming i Nonni into offering facsimile Italian cheese is how to take the next step.

  9. Aaron

    Fantastic article. Bottom line…beer is the neglected stepchild of most fine dining establishments, and it’s ridiculously short-sighted. Echoing Moe’s comment, the Twin Cities’ restaurateurs need to wake up and realize that 1) wine does not have a monopoly on food pairing (in fact, beer is much more versatile and complementary in many cases), and 2) passing off Euro-trash like Stella and Heinekin as suitable beer offerings (while ignoring infinitely higher quality and more interesting local options) is tantamount to dropping a box of wine on your customer’s table as they bite into a filet mignon.

  10. justice


    The Heavy Table has become essential reading since its unveiling–congratulations. That said, I’m in agreement with Adam Platt’s take above, and feel there’s a place for the local (The Craftsman, Alma, etc.) as well as place like i Nonni which endeavor to be a “cheap plane ticket”. It makes sense that the tomatoes are local (eg., Farmer Bob’s) but the coppa, the mozzeralla di buffala, and the olive oil are not. Not everyplace needs to follow the “eat local” ethos, which at times appears to verge on a punishing orthodoxy. While I love Phillips’ dry-cured ham, I also love vacca rosa prosciutto di parma–and comparing the two. I also don’t want whitefish or walleye sushi (and I’m certain you don’t either), but I suspect you’d have a difficult time making a distinction as to how the principle applies in one case but not the other.

    Regarding their beer selection, it’s not the best but it’s not Budweiser, either. They offer the Italians: Peroni, Moretti, and Menabrea, as well as Italian craft beers Super Baladin and Nora in 750 ml bottles. They don’t offer Stella. (Perhaps you’re thinking of Leffe?) But with their all-Italian wine list–80 percent of which is only carried there–beer isn’t really the focus, I’d guess. One can easily imagine a tea snob slagging a restaurant’s offerings…, but can a restaurant really be all things to all people? (And your strict locovore would permit tea, or coffee…)

  11. ryanol

    What about the business angle. Everybody wants restaurants that serve good food, with good service and local ingredients if available. But what about the business side of running a restaurant. Securing local beers that pair is not as simple as running to the liquor store. It might be distributed by an entirely different wholesaler, now you’ve got more paperwork, another rep to deal with, a different delivery guy/gal. Nevermind that the margins and the popularity may not be wide enough to justify bringing in full barrel. You can go the bottle route but now your talking about giving up cooler real estate.

    Also Stella is a good beer, so is Becks, P.U. and Sierra Neveda you don’t have to hate them because their popular.

  12. David Anderson

    Interesting the chatter this topic has generated. Having been in the beer/brewing biz for the past 14 years, I’ve seen the rise, fall, and rise again of craft beer. If you really want to sum up the “problem” with craft beer, it’s the need for education. Both consumer and those who sell craft beer. Craft beer is still around 4-5% of the total beer market. That’s a lot of well-marketed beer being sold… I love when people tout Stella as something “special” – that’s gotta be one of the greatest marketing feats in the past decade. Visit Belgium and you’ll find that Stella = Belgian Budweiser – it’s a well-made beer but compared to the real artistry of the small brewers who inhabit BE, it’s missing those trees for the very large forest…
    What to do?
    If you want a greater selection, esp. local (= fresh(er) and yes, not necessarily bettter – to each their own…), one has to ask their favorite restaurant to carry those beers. And then support those restaurants when the DO start to expand their list. Because if those retailers don’t see a decent return on carrying those beers – poof – back to the same ol’ that do sell.
    Most craft brewers have limited or zero $ for marketing, which means those of us who love craft products have to be the viral marketing team – make noise, tell others, demand (well…) placement on the beer list, support with your $$ and then repeat.
    Get thee educated on beer and brewing as well. There’s A LOT of ignorance when it comes to this fine malt beverage we all love and are passionate about – talking smart helps the cause. Explore the amazingly diverse spectrum of what beer can be – as mentioned above, beer can pair as well as any wine, and more often can surpass wine in food pairings (sure, a little bias here but I’ll take on any challengers…).
    To paraphrase an old Warsteiner bumper sticker, “Life’s too short for lame beer” – drink smart, drink what you like.

    Farmer Dave
    Dave’s BrewFarm – A Farmhouse Brewery
    Wilson, WI

  13. Sarah

    For me this is a sustainability issue. I like knowing that the majority of the ingredients I’m eating (and enjoying) come from just a few hundred miles away…instead of across the sea. While I do enjoy imported cheeses, etc., I sparingly pick & choose what those imports are because the environment is important to me.

    Perhaps I’d have a harder time deciding if I lived somewhere without our local abundance. We’re lucky we don’t have to make the choice. Cheers.

  14. Nate

    While I completely agree with your article the Red Stag does have some decent beers. BLB was one of the first places in town I remembering having Surly on tap. Last time I was there I had a Maudite which, despite being imported, was pretty damn good. Also keep in mind that some of these local breweries are struggling to keep up with production and distribution.

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