When Esplanade Ridge resident Kathleen Turpel and Palermo, Italy native Alessia Lepanto opened Nonna Mia (3125 Esplanade Ave., 948-1717; www.nonnamia.net) in 2009, they hoped to create a restaurant where patrons could dine alone or enjoy a casual gathering with friends. "We wanted a place where you could come have great food and great wine from a hand-picked wine list and not have to dress up," Turpel says. Now, loyal customers comprise the majority of diners. "People come here two, three times a day and it's like their kitchen," Turpel says. "We love that."
Turpel and Lepanto attribute much of the success of their Italian restaurant to a Chinese tradition: "This used to be a salon, and then it was a series of Japanese restaurants," Turpel says. "None of them particularly did well. ... So ... we brought in a feng shui master to change whatever energy was there. We wrote positive messages on all the beams inside, wishing happiness for anyone who came here." The duo also levied their career experience to give the restaurant its best chance at success: Turpel owns marketing company Imaginal Marketing Group, and Lepanto had worked at a Sicilian resort.
When Lepanto arrived in New Orleans five years ago, she enjoyed the city's take on Italian food but found it very different than the food she ate in Palermo. Turpel traveled to Sicily with Lepanto to observe the differences between Palermo's cuisine and New Orleans-style Italian dining, and Nonna Mia's menu reflects these culinary subtleties: Lemonade and tea are served with scoops of gelato; there are gelato brioche sandwiches, and lasagna comes with bechamel sauce. Nonna Mia makes all bread in house, gets sausage from Creole Country, cheesed from St. James Cheese Company and uses only Barilla pasta — the pasta Lepanto grew up with in Italy. Lepanto hopes gradually to incorporate family recipes into the menu: "I didn't want to build a menu with all unfamiliar dishes, but I wanted to introduce dishes little by little," she says. "Everyone is allowed to be creative — their culture mixed with my culture." One new addition to the menu is Pasta Rosa, pasta with shrimp and vegetables in a creamy, pink marinara sauce.
Many neighborhood residents appreciate Nonna Mia for being the first restaurant in the neighborhood to offer food delivery after Hurricane Katrina. However, Turpel hopes delivery-only patrons will make their way to the restaurant, even if just to sit at the bar with a cocktail or Italian soda. "It's a relaxing kind of feel in a beautiful location," she says.