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Nonna Mia 

For owner Alessia Lepanto, Nonna Mia (3125 Esplanade Ave., 948-1717; www.nonnamia.net) is more than a way to show off recipes from her Sicilian upbringing. It's a chance to share modern Italy with New Orleans.

  "I wanted people to learn more about my culture — how we feel when we eat lunch outside, how we feel when we talk in the kitchen," she says.

  This welcoming philosophy has helped Nonna Mia earn a dedicated following. The restaurant serves a selection of Sicilian-inspired pasta, panini and pizzas, along with specials like lobster fettuccine and roasted red pepper soup. The menu also includes uncommon authentic offerings, like a gelato brioche, which Lepanto says is a lunchtime favorite in Italy.

  Since opening last spring, Nonna Mia has thrived in the eclectic neighborhood in Faubourg St. John. The establishment's warm, informal atmosphere makes it a popular spot for a range of diners.

  "No matter what the occasion, everybody kind of fits in, so that's pretty cool," general manager Barbara Ekstrom says. Three or four times a week she sees the same faces enjoying either pizza by the slice or Key lime cheesecake.

  The restaurant's regulars include a devoted Italian contingent, which Lepanto says pleases her most of all.

  "It was very challenging having people come from Italy," she says. "Having them tell us that the food was great, in another country [and] a different culture, it's a blessing."

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