Peering through the window of Nonna’s Kitchen, which opened on New Year’s Day in Spearfish’s historic John Wolzmuth building on the corner of Main Street, you’d think the place ought to have a doorbell.
Darren and Nancy Manzari spent months converting the 125-year- old sandstone building from a rickety retail store to a vintage Parisian eatery enshrined with family relics and pieces of local history. The hearth of the fireplace was laid with old bricks from the ghost town of Tinton, and topped with black-and-white photographs of the couple’s older relatives. The ceiling’s chandelier previously hung inside the Parker House in Dickinson, ND from 1902 until the 1980s. The menus are decorated with family wedding photos, and to figure out why, you must ask. That’s the point of “Nancy’s vision.”
“I wanted it to feel like you were coming to my house for dinner,” said Nancy. “I didn’t want it to feel like you were coming into an establishment. That’s why I chose the fireplace to put family pictures on. To make it feel more like someone’s home. I wanted everyone to see who our family is.”
Family is the inspiration behind both the environment and the menu, down to the cheese; Nancy only uses Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese, imported directly from Rome, which costs $800-$1,000 per wheel before shipping. Not only that, but Darren claims head chef Matt Johnson cooked 1,000 meatballs in the Manzari kitchen before successfully replicating Nancy’s recipe. The Manzaris own a microwave. Nonna’s Kitchen does not.
“We don’t skimp on ingredients,” said Darren. “That drives our costs up, but we don’t mind that.”
Nancy’s recipes date back generations in the family—such as the Million Dollar Salad, derived from Nancy’s great aunt— or come straight from Nancy’s canon of home-cooked meals, which she learned in the kitchens of her Irish/Italian neighborhood growing up. Crazy Green Spaghetti was first coined by Nancy and Darren’s two children, Matthew and Darren Jr., when they saw their mother’s spinach pesto. A young Darren Jr. had trouble pronouncing “lasagna,” and thus was the birth of Darren Jr.’s Za Za.
In fact, it was the sons who bred the idea of their parents’ restaurant years ago, after a family friend forgot to organize catering for an art showing in Deadwood. Nancy, accustomed to feeding crowds of her son’s friends and track teammates, volunteered to prepare a spread of baked ziti, shrimp cocktail, roasted pork, meatballs, and a variety of salads for the congregation.
“I won’t ask you to do this again,” the artist told Nancy after the show, laughing. “Everyone was supposed to be here looking at my artwork and all they’re doing is talking about the food.”
Driving home, Nancy and Darren called Darren Jr. to tell him how the night went. The two had been traveling for 20 years (Darren was working as an efficiency consultant internationally) and Darren Jr. suggested they settle down and start a restaurant. They could even name it after the name Nancy’s grandchildren call her: “Nonna,” Italian for “grandmother.”
So they did, less than two years after moving to Spearfish in April 2018. The two have a rule for their restaurant that mimics family-centric Italian norms surrounding mealtime: the tables aren’t meant for turning.
“Family time around the table was always special to us. That’s where you talk to the kids, that’s where you find out what’s going on in their life,” said Darren. “If we invited you to our home for dinner, you’d come in, we’d give you an appetizer, you’d have dinner with us, we’d sit and talk and have coffee. That’s what we want here.”
“When you come here to us, the last thing we want to do is rush you. We’re not here to feed you and get you out. If you’re a table of four, you’ll be here for four hours; table of two, an hour-and-a-half.”– Darren Manzari
Here, a party occupying a table for four hours isn’t invited, Darren said, it’s expected. But that’s not to scare anyone coming in for a quick meal, Nancy assured.
“I want people to say, ‘this is where I want to go before a movie,’ but I also want them to say, ‘maybe I’ll propose here,’” said Nancy. “It doesn’t matter why you’re coming, I still say it should be special. You should feel like you’re coming to somebody’s home, where you can be yourself and eat and enjoy and laugh.”