By now, the names Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran should be rather familiar to those who pay close attention to the thriving Philadelphia restaurant scene or at least their creations like Lolita and Barbuzzo. The dynamic duo has been an intricate part of the revitalization of Midtown Village for over a decade, and you can now add Little Nonna’s to the landscape of cozy-chic places to dine in the vibrant neighborhood where the two have built their mini-empire, which also includes Open House, Jamonera, Grocery, Verde, and Marcie Blaine. We stopped by their almost nine-month-old Italian-American eatery for a chat, plenty of laughs, and a tasty lunch of spaghetti with a braised pork marinara and beef, veal and pork Fontina stuffed meatballs, pan-seared potato gnocchi, fresh-pulled mozzarella and olives with grilled country bread, wild mushroom arancini, and espresso tiramisu with pizzelle crumble. Yeah, we definitely had a good time at Little Nonna’s as you can read and see below.
La Colombe: You began with Open House, a “modern yet relaxed housewares boutique.” What inspired you to venture into owning a restaurant, which is historically a difficult business to succeed in?
Marcie Turney: I was a chef in the city. I’ve been a chef in Philadelphia for… I don’t even know how long – 15 years.
Valerie Safran: More than that…
MT: 20 years – Val and I met in a restaurant. She was a Spanish teacher, and wanted to leave teaching so we opened Open House, and I was a chef at a different restaurant. And then, we talked about opening our own restaurant so that was Lolita. And that was 11 years ago.
LC: What restaurants did you work at before?
MT: Audrey Claire, Twenty Manning, and Valanni.
LC: What’s the most rewarding thing about being a restauranteur?
VS: Restaurants are exciting. When you’re in your restaurant and it’s packed, there’s just this energy that’s fun and exciting. There is so much hard work that goes into it that maybe the guest doesn’t see. But when you have those moments…
MT: When it all comes together like you planned… (laughs)
VS: Yeah, you forget about the other stuff… (laughs)
MT: It’s funny because we have all these businesses, but they are run like small businesses. They all have this family of people who get along, and then they also don’t get along. But it’s like a family.
VS: And then the mommies have to come in. (laughs)
MT: Right. But it’s so interesting to see all the different personalities.
VS: Each place has a lot of young people in the front of the house or the back of the house who are all figuring out where they are in life whether it be they’re a young line cook and they want to be a chef or they want to one day own their own restaurant. It really goes back to teaching and all those things.
LC: So you are a teacher at heart.
VS: (laughs) Yes.
MT: But on your own terms – you don’t have to get up everyday at five in the morning. (laughs)
VS: Exactly, exactly (laughs) – I’m not going to say what I am thinking. (laughs) I’m going to get myself into trouble. (laughs)
LC: What’s the most annoying/frustrating thing about it?
MT: (laughs) That’s you.
VS: I think that probably you pour your life and your time into a restaurant or a business, and when a customer comes through and they say something horrible about you online, and you’re like we’re trying so hard. (laughs) And you just said everything in like ten sentences. People just don’t understand that it’s still real people who are behind it. Nobody wants to do a bad job, and that’s frustrating because I don’t think people realize that there is an affect. What they say ultimately people do pay attention to, and you don’t want to, but at the same time, you have to.
MT: People like to say things, but they don’t like to say it to you.
VS: There is almost like a cruelness to it. I wouldn’t say anything to an employee to be hurtful. I would want to say it in a constructive way. I don’t think that the customer always does it that way.
MT: You want to keep the relationship going, but they don’t care. They just don’t want to come there anymore. They’re over it.
VS: You can’t make everyone happy.
LC: What advice would you give someone starting his/her own restaurant, or do you wish someone gave you when you first started?
VS: I think for me on kind of a more front of the house end of it. You really do have to listen to your customer, and you have to be willing to change… (laughs) Because at the end of the day, you have to have customers; not just for the six months when people are interested, but for ten years down the line, so it’s finding a way to balance this is what I want but this is the way that’s going to make your business successful, pairing the two. You just have to be flexible. If you go into thinking that this is what I want and how I want it to be, sometimes that works, but a lot of times you have to adjust a little bit because the customer is always right. And it’s just not a restaurant; it’s a business. It has to be successful in that respect, but it’s a very hard line to take. Customer is always right. Believe it or not.
LC: What is your connection with Italian food?
MT: Mmm…our connection…
VS: We love to eat it.
MT: Yeah. I’ve always loved Mediterranean food – to have a little of everything in olive oil, citrus and light food. And with Barbuzzo, we travelled to Italy a couple of times. It’s just inspiring.
VS: It’s like when we travel. “Where do you want to go?” Italy – everything – the lifestyle, the food – it just makes you want to relax and indulge.
MT: Drink wine and eat pasta. (laughs) Doing Nonna’s, it’s a play on Italian-American. How it is different than Italian, and this was fun doing. It’s a small little space, and that was kind of the concept. We were trying to figure out what to put here. You can’t do this concept in a large restaurant. It’s meant to be a gem of a restaurant. And doing these plates, if I’m going to serve spaghetti and meatballs, it’s going to be the best spaghetti and meatballs that you’ve ever seen. And we’re gonna twirl up the spaghetti, and make people talk about it.
VS: Right. And crave it.
MT: It’s fun to recreate it, and modernize it a little bit.
VS: At the end of the day, Italian is just simple food. Just awesome ingredients prepared simply. At the end of the day, I think people want that over and over again.
LC: Is your food at Little Nonna’s inspired by a certain region of Italy?
MT: It’d probably be more Southern Italy.
LC: How does Little Nonna’s differ from the Italian restaurants that you’ll find throughout Philly?
MT: It is Italian-American, but then from other Italian restaurants, we go into South Philly. We have a huge love of design. You walk in. I love to see people who grew up eating gravy walk in, and they feel like they are walking into something my grandma would have, whether it is a plate or picture or whatever. We’ll go eat in South Philly, and it’s that relaxing plate of spaghetti and a bottle of red wine, but to take it and elevate it a little bit. To have three generations sitting at a table is pretty cool.
VS: I think that the food is just updated versions. South Philly is South Philly, and you love it for that reason, but the classics kind of remain. For us, it’s updated, and I think even a little bit lighter. It can be a little heavy, which is great in the middle of winter, but certainly here for spring and summer, it’s definitely a lightened up version.
LC: Is there a particular dish that you are proud of?
MT: It would be the Sunday gravy.
VS: Yeah, because people talk about it, and we actually have it every day of the week, but on Sundays literally at five o’clock there is a line outside the door of people coming in, and we sell so many orders on Sunday. It’s crazy. We have it every day. I don’t know, but for some reason, people like to come on Sunday.
LC: The design of your restaurant has a retro 50’s family-owned Italian restaurant feel to it. Were there any photos, movies, paintings, etc. that you used to complete your vision?
VS: I think. We’ve never been, but there is Rao’s in New York, and I remember looking online at pictures. That was probably one of the driving forces. You just hear these stories of all these people who went there. It’s this famous place that you can’t get in, and there are only this many seats. I wish we could go there. We just don’t know how to get in. (laughs) So that kind of mystery is kind of exciting.
LC: Do you plan on expanding beyond Midtown Village?
VS: We just re-opened Lolita, and we have this other bigger restaurant at 13th and Locust so we’re not really thinking beyond that. We are looking to buy a building. At this point, we don’t want to lease anymore, so when we buy that building, if it has a commercial part to it on the first floor, it may be in a different neighborhood. It’s hard though because this neighborhood is so vibrant and so alive that I can’t imagine it being better so it’s scary to think that way. But I know that there are other great neighborhoods.
LC: What are you planning to do for the bigger place?
MT: That will be American.
VS: We don’t have our version of American, and we are two white girls from the Midwest. (laughs) We’re bringing it home.
LC: Do you have a name for it?
VS: Not quite – we do, but we didn’t announce it yet.
MT: We do?
VS: Kind of… (laughs) In the next month, we’ll figure it out.
LC: How did you first discover La Colombe?
MT: When Audrey Claire first opened, Todd (Carmichael), that’s back when they would deliver the product – a long, long time ago. We always used it there. Wherever I went, I would make sure that we were using it, and then we’ve had our own restaurants for eleven years now, and when we travel, we were in Chicago, and we saw La Colombe on the corner. We took an Instagram.
VS: It’s so weird.
MT: It’s weird. It was just always La Colombe cafe.
VS: That’s how it has always remained in my brain. When I see it in other cities, it’s like so weird, but it’s not.
MT: And you go in, and I want to be like: “We’re from Philly.” (laughs) We know this. (laughs) It’s definitely like hometown pride.
VS: But we also sell it in our little market. We literally drink La Colombe every single day. At 7am, I’m brewing La Colombe in our apartment.
LC: What La Colombe do you like to brew?
VS: Corsica – it’s the only thing. You’re so trained to it that you can’t drink anything else.
LC: What do you like or suggest pairing on Little Nonna’s menu with La Colombe?
VS: Our pistachio cannoli – I mean our deserts are Italian-American – the cannoli. Our tiramisu is made with La Colombe espresso in it. It’s ladyfingers with mascarpone, Sauvignon, and then the ladyfingers are dipped in a mixture of espresso, heavy cream and some cinnamon, and they’re just dipped in there and layered between all these layers, and then there’s a dark chocolate cookie layer in between a ladyfinger layer.
LC: What Italian dish does Marcie make at home that you think she should add to Little Nonna’s menu?
VS: (laughs) She doesn’t cook. (laughs) She has not cooked a meal in ten years.
MT: She instagrammed a picture of our fridge, and there is just half and half. That’s the only thing that’s in there. (laughs) For coffee in the morning, and we’re out the door. So funny, that’s the truth.