The idea for Nonna's and Formento's is a "very personal concept" that restaurateur John Ross says sprang from his childhood.
Nonna's, the Italian-American grab-and-go sandwich shop opened today in the West Loop, while Ross and his partners at B. Hospitality Group (Bristol, Balena) waited for Chicago officials to approve a liquor license for their larger and neighboring restaurant, Formento's. The city finally came through and Formento's will open on Wednesday.
Family suppers inspired Ross and Formento's executive chef Tony Quartaro (who also created Nonna's menu), Ross said. He stressed "clean and sleek" in the restaurants' designs, something that will "transfer you to the old world." The family theme carries over in Nonna's menu, which features a sandwich named after Ross' late brother. "The Frank" is a sausage sandwich topped with Calabrian mayo and mozzarella, the type of fare Ross said the brothers would eat together as children at the Iowa State Fair.
Though he's a Midwest boy, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Ross acknowledged the impact New York has had on Italian-American cuisine, as southern Italian immigrants settled in various enclaves in that city. Last year he and some of his partners ventured to the Big Apple for a scouting trip, hoping to learn some new tricks of the trade. As the number of Chicago's Italian restaurants continues to increase, it's vital to search for some thing that sets a restaurant apart. House-made olive oil and dressings and a line of Formento wines are some features which Ross said will make his restaurants special for Chicagoans.
"I think competition is good; I think everyone has their spin on Italian cuisine, obviously we have our own," he added.
It appears the group did bring home some inspiration. If the sandwich shop neighboring an Italian restaurant sounds familiar, it is, as the set up is similar to New York's celebrated sandwich shop Parm and the attached Torrisi Italian Specialties, which opened in 2009 and 2011, as well as neighboring Carbone, which opened in 2013. Ross is a big fan of Carbone, saying he's made several visits to Major Food Group's lauded Italian restaurant and it's one of his favorites.
"Talk about a place that takes you back to your childhood," Ross said of Carbone. "Those guys are top notch when it comes to connecting and capturing the old school."
Formento's/Nonna's and Carbone/Parm share some similar touches — from the dishes food's served on, the subway floor tile and the color and style of their brandings. When it comes to the logos, Parm and Formento's share almost the same shade of red, and the slope or the angle of the text is nearly a match. Sloped text is a rarity when it comes to Italian restaurant logos.
So will transplanted New Yorkers hankering for a taste and feel of home find salvation at Formento's and Nonna's? Or is this a Chicago clone?
"Everything about Nonna's, everything about Formento's is about us," Ross said, talking about Formento's "sexy" backroom and private dining options.
Ross later added: "I don't say this as a knock on Carbone, but they didn't create Italian-American cuisines, it's been around for a hundred years or more. I don't know if anyone can say that (they created it). I can name dozens of restaurants that are interpretations of others...even at The Bristol today, they are a lot of restaurants that opened using our concepts....
"If people want to say it's similar to something, they're going to say it."
Take a look at Nonna's menu here:
Disclaimer: The editor of this site is related to a partner in Major Food Group.