Elegant simplicity at Nando Trattoria, Manhattan Beach
Nando Trattoria goes to the essence of Italian food
About 50 years ago, upscale restaurant Chez Panisse shocked diners by serving a peach for dessert. Not a peach cobbler, shortcake, galette, or pudding, just a piece of fruit on a plate, with a knife next to it. It was symbolic of how they wanted diners to focus on the simple and natural. When you have a wonderful piece of ripe fruit, what could improve on it?
I imagine someone in Italy reading a news article about this and being puzzled. Of course there are times when you focus on an unadorned or barely accented ingredient. Could it be that Americans had forgotten this somehow? In the 1970s when that restaurant opened, we had. Part of the California food revolution was to remind us of the way much of the world enjoys their best meats and produce.
This tradition is on display in high style at Nando Trattoria, a Sicilian restaurant that made a splash when they opened in Illinois, then moved to California. They made my best-of-the-year list for 2020 on the strength of amazing takeout food from a limited menu. That was light on seafood even though that was the intended focus of the restaurant, because the owners were wary of stocking a large inventory of perishable items when business was so uncertain.
Now that things have stabilized and they can serve both indoors and out, the menu has doubled in size, and there’s a distinct sense of making up for lost time. The menu changes regularly, and Dario Vullo, who runs the front of the house, sounds excited each time he describes the items his brother Alessio Vullo is creating in the kitchen. Dario is a very engaging owner, going from table to table to chat with customers, and on a recent visit we decided to express our confidence by asking him to order both the foods and wines. We described our likes and dislikes and sat back to see what would show up.
First were glasses of prosecco to sip as we enjoyed the buzz of their patio. This is louder than the inside tables thanks to pop music from the neighboring restaurant, but it’s not excessive. Numerous plants screen the space from the street and plastic dividers reduce the airflow between tables, and it’s a cozy, comfortable space.
The first item to arrive was scallop crudo, the Sicilian equivalent of sashimi, which uses olive oil, citrus, and herbs to accent rather than wasabi and soy sauce. If you like one, you’ll probably enjoy the other, but there’s no mistaking the two. Soy adds umami and saltiness, while good olive oil with a slight acidity and richness marries the flavors of herbs with the seafood. In this case the seafood was thinly sliced scallops, and the seasonings were green herbs, pepper, and lime. This was garnished with curls of cucumber and slices of radish, chili peppers, and kumquats, along with strands of sea asparagus, a plant also known as pickleweed or samphire. There were plenty of flavors on that plate, but they were all in harmony with the scallops and enhanced the delicate shellfish flavor.
This was served with a loaf of what was referred to as focaccia, but wasn’t at all like the pan bread that is usually served by that name. The freshly baked round loaf arrived warm, and was very good by itself or slathered with a bit of the truffle butter that was provided. We had to stop ourselves from eating too much, because we knew other delights were on the way.
These were arancini, the conical rice balls that are emblematic of Sicily, and fritto misto, which is enjoyed everywhere in Italy but comes in a variety of regional styles. Rice came to Sicily with Arab conquerors in the tenth century, and is most famous in Italian cuisine in risotto. If you think of taking a creamy cheese and spinach risotto and fry it, you’re not far wrong. In Sicily this is a street food, but the version here would be messy as finger food – it’s on a bed of tomato sauce and topped with grated parmesan and herbs. I highly recommend ordering one as an appetizer for at least two people, because it’s delicious but filling.
We were less happy with the fritto misto, a layered dish of house-made potato chips topped by a mix of seafood dominated by calamari and crowned with a pair of huge, plump prawns. The prawns had been butterflied and steamed, probably to give a texture contrast with the deep-fried seafood. However, the chips and the calamari were both a bit on the oily side, an unusual lapse in technique from a kitchen that proved unerring in so much else.
The next dishes were a pasta Norma, which is rigatoni in tomato sauce with eggplant and cheese, and a seafood stew called Cacciucco that is usually associated with Tuscany. Pasta Norma is such a simple rustic dish that I was surprised to see it served when the chef was invited to send out whatever he was most proud of, but his instincts were good. The large pasta tubes were the perfect al dente, the roasted eggplant was soft but not mushy, and the lightly applied sauce added fruity and herbal flavors without taking over. There was a hint of pepperiness that was balanced by the creamy fresh cheese, and just enough other seasoning so you could tell something was there but not what it was. A peasant could afford the ingredients, but when created with a master’s skill, it’s suitable for the finest tables.
The seafood stew was recognizably related to cioppino, the spicier and thicker variant created by Italian fishermen in San Francisco, but there were distinct differences. Cioppino broth has strong tomato, garlic, and herb flavors that sometimes take over the dish, and the seafood is generally submerged in that liquid. Here a fish stock was an equal partner with the tomato, and the broth was a half-inch or so on the bottom of the plate. Above that were a large piece of sea bass flanked by clams and mussels, and topped by giant prawns. It smelled and tasted of the sea in the best way, the flavor intense but good in a way that is hard to describe in English. When you see the word fishy in a review it usually has a negative connotation, but this tasted of shellfish and fish in a way that captured their essence.
Over the course of the meal our server brought out wines by the glass from their list, which has some superb selections that complement this cuisine. Prices by the glass run from $16 to $20. There are good bottles from $60 to $75 and great ones on the reserve list that go from $150 to $350. I was surprised to see so few Sicilian wines on the list – there are a few, and they’re good ones, but I’d like to dive deeper and discover more about the region.
I have tried two desserts at Nando, their cannoli and a semifreddo. Cannoli are served all over Italy but originated in Sicily, where tubular biscuits are stuffed with ricotta cheese, candied orange peel, and pistachios, then dipped in chocolate. It’s less sweet than the cannoli served at most restaurants and all the better for it, because the candied orange and chocolate works so well together.
The semifreddo is a more unusual and ornate version, A chilled dessert that’s halfway between a custard and ice cream, laced with nuts, topped with chocolate, and served alongside a scoop of berry ice cream, some fresh fruit, and a dusting of bitter chocolate. If you have to pick one, get the semifreddo. Cannoli are one of my favorite desserts, and the one served here is excellent, but the semifreddo is the best I can remember having anywhere. Get either with a glass of Passito, the dessert wine from the tiny Island of Pantelleria, which has a lovely raisiny flavor to finish the meal.
Dinner at Nando Trattoria can range from an everyday meal to an extravagance – pasta entrees start at around $25 and can top $75 for items involving fresh lobster or steak. Prices are comparable with other restaurants in the area, and offer a more individual and exceptional experience. These are the true flavors of Sicily, served by a staff who know this cuisine and are seasoned pros.
Nando Trattoria is at 1131 Manhattan Avenue in MB. Open 5 to 11 p.m Mon. through Sat. 4 to 10 p.m. Sun. Street parking. Indoor or patio dining. Beer and wine served, corkage $50. Some vegetarian items. Reservations recommended (424) 237-2236. Nandotrattoria.com. ER
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