A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

New Hampshire is one of the few New England states with an expanding population — mostly “immigrants” from other states. It’s a good bet that a fair share are toting sauté pans and chef’s knives.

It’s a blessed thing that new chefs keep “immigrating” to our rocky state. Whether it is the wholesome environment or room for growth, over the past seven years we have seen an influx of talent from the culinary industry. In fact, according to DRED and the National Restaurant Association, New Hampshire will have a 14 percent growth in the restaurant field in the next 10 years.

Chef/owner Mat Minitsky of Nonni’s Italian Eatery traveled the world from Greece to Bermuda, opening Hyatt Hotel restaurants and working on a cruise line. Seven years ago he came to New Hampshire with his Culinary Institute of America training and a wealth of experience from global travel.

His first restaurant, The Meeting House Inn in Henniker across from Pats Peak, was a lesson for Minitsky in the economy of scale and location in this state. It was difficult to fill the house mid-week and after skiing season. Even before he sold that property, he had started Nonni’s in up-and-coming Hillsborough. That was three years ago, shortly after the Route 202 bypass opened. The detour left the center of town free of congested traffic and ripe for destination dining and selection of interesting shops.

The storefront space retains its historical character with brick walls and accent lighting in copper. A bar area in front has a few high-top tables and large windows looking out to Main Street. A larger room in back is open to the wood-fired pizza oven and more family dining. The fluorescent lighting from the kitchen could be screened a bit more, but otherwise it is a very cozy environment.

Nonni’s has become a neighborhood restaurant — the kind of place people dine several times a week because of the good value of the meals and the family-size portions of pasta. Minitsky offers entrée-size and family-style bowls of fettuccine Alfredo ($11, $21), lasagna dal Forno ($13, $24), spaghetti Bolognese ($13, $24), etc. that can feed a family of four. To reward frequent diners he offers a loyalty card that is scanned after each meal so he can keep in touch with special offers and dining discounts.

With true passion, Chef Minitsky hones his menu to reflect authentic techniques and traditions he learned abroad. Family-size portions are common in Greece. His gnocchi is created in the time-honored manner of straining the potatoes again and again. The result is soft, tender pillows of dough offered only occasionally. His gnocchi lovers call in to find out when.

The “Piatto Principale” or main course offerings range from a chicken marsala ($18) to a roasted veal chop ($28). The chicken was very tender and offered with portabello and button mushrooms. Wood-fired brick oven pizzas are topped with the flavors of the world, from The Mexican ($14) with roasted green tomatilla sauce and salsa to the Chow Bella ($14) with caramelized onions, rosemary and marinated portabella mushrooms.

Minitsky’s food philosophy and recipes at Nonni’s (Italian for grandmother’s) reflect the Italian-American Heritage. This is the kind of food immigrant grandmothers put on the table for the extended family. The kind of food the children now remember so fondly.

Another source of pride for the chef/owner is the quality of his ingredients. He says “for less than a dollar a serving I can offer a top-notch pasta, so why not?” He buys local when possible and changes the menu on a seasonal basis to take advantage of what is available in the marketplace.

He is also expanding Nonni’s into the former chocolate shop next door. The extra space will help with the crowds on weekends and offers a place to sip wine before being seated. He hopes to have a few tables alongside the building for outdoor dining by the summer to take advantage of the small park next door.

Sure, he admits to missing life in a big city, but he enjoys raising his children here and putting his talents to use in this small town. If fact, his most satisfying moments come when someone thanks him for creating a good place to eat in a former dusty antique shop on Main Street. NH

Nonni’s Italian Eatery
(603) 464-6766, Main Street, Hillsborough
Opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Check online for Minitsky’s “Virtual Cookbook,” a collection of 25 recipes and techniques in video format.