At Nonno’s, the Secret Ingredient is Love
Writer Jessica Swannie celebrates a taste of home at Nonno’s Italian Restaurant.
Tucked away in Altamonte Springs’ quiet Prairie Lake Plaza is one of Orlando’s most delicious, garlic-scented hidden gems: Nonno’s Italian Restaurant.
Nonno’s is—simply put—charming. Within the cozy interior featuring photos of Italian food on the walls and relaxed seating, diners find the perfect spot to enjoy an Italian meal. But even more charming than the restaurant itself is the team behind it.
The LaCommare family isn’t new to serving Central Florida. Prior to Nonno’s, the LaCommares ran three different spots; most recently, Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs. But with 175 seats and a local following, it quickly became more than they expected.
“It was too successful, you know? It wasn’t fun for us anymore. We were dragging it home and we felt we needed to downsize,” said Leonardo “Lenny” LaCommare, son to Stefano LaCommare—or “Nonno.”
At 65 seats, Nonno’s is just right. “This is the perfect retirement restaurant for Stefano,” Lenny said.
And perfect it is.
A CULINARY HOMAGE TO SICILY AND NEW YORK
For me growing up in Buffalo, New York, Italian food was a staple. My grandparents, as well as my next-door neighbor, emigrated from Italy. During my childhood, there was no shortage of homegrown tomatoes to prepare in homemade sauces for big Sunday family meals.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered what I can proudly—and loudly, complete with hand gestures—say is the best Italian restaurant I’ve had the pleasure of dining in. Much like the meals from my childhood, Nonno’s is a blend of traditional Sicilian-style cooking with a New York flair.
“It’s funny and cliché, but my father came over here on boat right to New York,” Lenny said. “He was cooking for ten, fifteen restaurants. He learned to cook that New York/Little Italy-type of food, and he put his twist on it.”
So, what can you expect from a visit to Nonno’s? An incredible array of traditional seafood dishes, including the tasty Shrimp Parmesan (a common dish in New York, but one that is harder to find here), as well as Zuppa di Mare Marsalese and Linguine con Cozze, plus an array of daily specials designed by Nonno himself.
Everything is made in-house, down to the breadcrumbs. “We don’t order breadcrumbs. We use our leftover bread, and we grind it up. We’re doing everything from scratch here.”
If you’re not sure what to order, pay special attention to the Signature Dishes portion of the menu, including Tortellini de Leo or Gnocchi de Nonno. But above all else, come hungry for the pesto sauce.
THIS ENTIRE SECTION IS DEDICATED TO PESTO SAUCE—IT’S THAT GOOD
“There’s a funny story behind that pesto,” Lenny said, referring to the dipping sauce that accompanies bread at Nonno’s.
As is often the case in Italian kitchens, the recipe came about during an argument. When the LaCommare family first opened the Winter Springs restaurant, they used an herb mix that they’d serve with olive oil and bread. “We mastered that, and it was beautiful,” Lenny said. “Then we got into [Nonno’s] and I was like ‘We’re going to do the herb mix, right?’ and [Stefano] said ‘No, son. We’re going to switch things up, don’t worry about it.’” (Please read “Don’ worry ‘bout it!” in your best Italian accent.)
“He started grabbing some basil, started mixing stuff together, and I said, ‘You’re going to put vinegar in the pesto?’ And he said, ‘Shhhh relax, watch the master,’” Lenny said. “He started throwing everything together. Next thing you know, we have this pesto sauce. As soon as I heard the feedback from the customers, I knew this was it.”
Lenny is proud of the relationship he’s developed with his father on the business side. Stefano creates the dishes, and Lenny distills them into recipes that makes sense for the business. “He creates everything from scratch, no recipe. He just puts everything together,” Lenny said.
What is perhaps more incredible than the sauce itself was Lenny’s ability to get a recipe with actual measurements. For anyone who grew up in an Italian family and ever asked for a recipe, you probably received some sort of generic response with a bunch of ingredients listed: a pinch of this, handful of that. As I’ve come to learn, you measure garlic with your soul.
“That’s my father, that’s how he explains all his recipes. ‘Ah, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Don’t worry ‘bout it. Taste it and add more ingredients.’” Lenny said, laughing.
SCALING AMID COVID
The demand for the pesto sauce gave Lenny an idea during the pandemic. “I was researching different avenues to bring in streams of income. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen during COVID, but we’re trying to get our pesto sauce on the shelves in Whole Foods,” he said.
Until then, you can order an $8 to-go tub with your meal. It stays good for about a week in the freezer—if you have enough self-control to not eat it all in one sitting.
In addition to pursuing Whole Foods, Nonno’s stayed afloat amid COVID by offering to-go meals. “Luckily, we adapted. We’re really grateful for that.”
While quality can sometimes suffer with takeout, I can personally attest to the quality of their to-go options. We drive 45 minutes from Lake Nona to Altamonte Springs specifically for Nonno’s food, and the meals are so hot when we arrive back home that we need to use oven mitts to transfer them to a plate.
And yes, pesto sauce is always included.
DINING IN? ORDER THE FISH
“I’m a specialist in everything, but I really appreciate fish because I was a fisherman in my country. I started working on a fishing boat when I was 16 years old,” Stefano shared.
Growing up, Stefano learned from his mom, and everyone in the household was encouraged to cook. As he mastered her recipes, he added his own spin. And that’s what gives Nonno’s its edge over other mom-and-pop Italian in the Orlando area. “We have recipes that are original that nobody has,” Lenny explained. “A lot of cooking is Italian-American. I cook more traditional, like from my country,” Stefano adds.
Take, for instance, the Stuffed Chicken Balls. “I think even if you go to New York nowadays, you don’t see that on the menu,” Lenny said. “It’s a little chicken ball stuffed with whatever my father feels like that day.”
Nonno’s also offers seafood combination dishes not found in other local Italian restaurants. Lenny notes that the ones who do offer them are likely the restaurants they sold. “You can’t go to these other mom-and-pop restaurants and get these seafood combinations. [Here], you get shrimp, scallops, calamari, all with different types of sauces. I feel like the originality of our recipes is what sets us apart from other restaurants,” Lenny said.
NOBODY LEAVES HUNGRY
Perhaps the best part about Nonno’s dishes is the sheer size. In an Italian household, one helping of pasta simply isn’t enough. Nonno’s operates with the same mentality. “That’s how we were brought up; nobody’s leaving hungry. That’s just normal for us,” Lenny said.
When Lenny was on the board of the culinary program for Orange County, the chefs told him his portions were too big. “That’s just our style. There’s no way we’re going to cut down. When people leave with Styrofoam, that’s our thing. That’s what we do.”
Hungry yet? Stop in early to Nonno’s (it gets crowded quickly) or order takeout.
“I cook so many wonderful dishes from my own country,” Stefano said. “It is beautiful to see that people like them. I don’t cook boring.”
He certainly does not
1140 E. Altamonte Dr.
Altamonte Springs, FL