Restaurant Review - Noni's Bar and Deli brings Italian to the Old 4th Ward

Back in March, I declared that Dynamic Dish was a canary in the coal mine for Edgewood Avenue, and to see that restaurant thrive boded well for the street in general. Today, Dynamic Dish is still alive and well, and a slew of other new restaurants have sprouted, or are about to sprout up, along the moderately bedraggled avenue. I'm tempted, this time, to resist expounding upon fast-track gentrification's numerous dichotomies. But with Noni's Bar and Deli, the elegant scene inside clashes so entirely with the somewhat depressing and somewhat endearing street life outside, I'd be doing a disservice by refusing to mention it.

Yes, Edgewood Avenue is changing. And no, it has not changed that much. You may be asked for money by a woman with her wig askew, and the handsome young men who frequent the barber shop a few doors down may be lounging on your car by the time you come to retrieve it. But stepping into Noni's is like stepping through a portal into another ... well, not another world, but certainly another part of town.

The large bar that takes up most of the front room has already become a hangout for hipsters and cute boy couples who live in the neighborhood, and there's more of a bar scene than a dinner scene right now. But the small dining room in the back of the space is delightful, clad in tiny antique-looking black and white tiles and decorated with sepia-toned matriarchal portraits. A pop of modernism slices through the room's nostalgic design in the form of a wood and white-patent-leather-cushioned banquette. The tables tend to be a tad wobbly, but the simple napkin rolls and bottles of chilled water delivered upon arrival set the stage for what's to come: neighborhood Italian fare with style, but without fussy adornment or fine-dining aspirations.

I adore the short, all-Italian wine list with fun and food-friendly varietals such as falanghina and vernaccia. Everything is available by the glass, so experimentation is encouraged. And the young and eager servers' and owners' can-do attitudes are a refreshingly honest contrast to the overtrained and overly slick service we're used to in Atlanta.

The compact menu offers some nibbly antipasti, a wide range of sandwiches and panini, four kinds of pasta paired with a choice of six sauces, and two entrees. In other words, carbs with meat and carbs with sauce. Yes, salads can be found on the antipasti menu, but the point here is elegant comfort food.

You shouldn't miss the cannellini bean puree, even if you're only at Noni's to drink. The ramped-up, hummuslike dip has a shot of truffle oil – just enough to bring out the beans' richness and aromatics. Share it with your friends, but not too many of them if you want to avoid a mad scramble for that last scoop.

Other great sharing-and-drinking treats include the incredibly oily but somehow still delicious fritto misto, which boasts fried slices of eggplant and zucchini and stalks of asparagus. The house fries are heaped in all their crispy glory in a huge bowl, and flavored with enough garlic to ward off an army of vampires. Eat with caution – you won't get lucky sporting Noni's breath.

Sandwiches stand out for their fillings, but I'm not sold on the bread. The muffuletta is a meaty good time, but the focaccia it comes on is just wrong. I'm not a total purist, but I genuinely feel as though the sandwich doesn't work with such soft, pliant bread. The cold Noni sandwich with Genoa salami, ham, capicola, provolone, roasted red pepper, and a vinegary salad inside comes on a hoagie roll that has no personality at all. The sandwich's ingredients deserve great, crusty bread to set them off.

Toasted pumpernickel used for the Italian tuna sandwich becomes too brittle and stern to properly cradle the sharp, capers-and-anchovies-spiked tuna. The pumpernickel, however, works well with soft, roasted veggies in the Tuscan panini.

The standard pastas are fine, but it's worth every cent of the extra $4 to upgrade to the homemade tagliatelle. The delicate, slightly eggy noodles seem so light that only the sauce keeps them from floating off the plate. I especially enjoyed the tagliatelle with the boldly sharp puttanesca made to order with capers, olives, anchovies and tomatoes.

Noni's meatballs, made with pork, beef and pumpernickel bread crumbs, manage the wonderful depth that only homemade meatballs can achieve, and go well as a companion to pasta or as a sub (although the subs could also benefit from a crustier hoagie).

For a sure remedy to a red-sauce-and-gooey-cheese craving, Noni's hybrid chicken and eggplant Parmesan satisfies with lightly breaded ingredients and a bright marinara. The only other entree, a generous dish of meat lasagna, benefits from a fluffy béchamel sauce – I hope one day owner Matt Ruppert decides to attempt a house-made pasta for the lasagna as well, because the dish deserves it.

The key to Noni's appeal is that it doesn't reach beyond its means. There are no braised meats or fancy reductions, and it may well end up being more of a bar than a restaurant (Ruppert called me to stress that "bar" comes before "deli" in the name). But the feel of the place, as well as the food, succeeds completely within its context. And the restaurant shows that Edgewood Avenue may indeed become a haven for cool independent restaurants, where personality wins out over artifice.

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