AVONDALE — From the tables at La Nonna, it's easy to imagine an Argentinean grandmother tucked away in the kitchen, tenderly assembling crustless miga sandwiches or folding over the edges of her empanadas.
In truth, chef José Rivero is nobody's grandmother, but his recipe books come straight from grandmothers' kitchens.
La Nonna — literally "Grandma" in Italian — opened in Avondale this month at 3400 N. Lawndale Ave. Using recipes from his own Hispanic grandmother and the Italian matriarch of his wife's family, Rivero serves up steak milanesa and lomitos sandwiches, pizza and burgers in a charming mash-up of Argentinean and American classics.
He and business partner Ricardo Caceres, both native Argentineans, have been working on La Nonna for three years. Rivero learned how to cook at his brother's restaurant in Argentina, while Caceres got his start in the food industry as a busboy at Leona's.
"I always wanted to do something for myself," Caceres said. "My friend is a chef, so we had the idea of opening a restaurant."
La Nonna opened in early April at 3400 N. Lawndale Ave. in Avondale. [All photos DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Originally set to open La Nonna in west suburban Berwyn, the pair regrouped when their planned location fell through and settled, instead, in Avondale.
"We love this community already," Caceres said. "They've embraced us, and we didn't know if we should expect that. But that's the people here; everybody wants you to succeed."
They spent months custom building the furniture and fixtures, like two long hanging lamps with bulbs inside cheese graters. From table to ceiling, their personal touches are everywhere.
Co-owners Ricardo Caceres and Jose Rivero built rustic fixtures like custom lighting made with cheese graters for La Nonna.
The owners thought they could run the restaurant by themselves but have already enlisted extra help for crowded weekends. As they work out the kinks, customers have been understanding of the occasional glitch, Caceres said.
"They say the food is great, and they understand if it takes a little longer," Caceres said. "They say, 'We're here to support you guys, and we hope you stay here for many years.' "
For months, La Nonna's sign has been tantalizing neighbors, promising the end of a long vacancy left by Curio Cafe in 2010. The storefront's earliest tenants were both taquerias from 2001 to 2003, according to city data.
La Nonna opened April 5 at 3400 N. Lawndale Ave. in Avondale.
Across the street from St. Wenceslaus and near Reilly Elementary, La Nonna is nestled in the residential blocks of Avondale just west of the Kennedy Expy. With its only competition farther out on Pulaski or Belmont, Caceres said he hopes La Nonna will become "the restaurant of the neighborhood."
For brunch, La Nonna features espresso, omelettes and miga sandwiches, made with crustless English bread and toasted. Simple prosciutto and ham migas are $5 and $4, while triple-layered versions include an egg, ham and red pepper sandwich for $8 and a cheesy chicken miga for $9.
The morron y huevo miga sandwich comes sans crust and is made with ham, cheese, red pepper, olives and mayonnaise. Served with a side of papas rotas, a triple is $8.
Desserts at La Nonna include the dulce de leche-filled panqueque, which is served with caramelized seasonal fruit.
Pepper and egg sandwiches and burgers made with bacon and beef or chicken and avocado are $8.25-$9, while paninis are $6.50-$8 and made with eggplant, chicken pesto or prosciutto. Empanadas are $2 and come neatly labeled as beef, chicken, veggie or ham and cheese.
Key to both Argentinean cuisine — a blend of indigenous foods and Italian and Spanish influences — and La Nonna's dinner menu is the steak, which is made milanesa style, or breaded. Sandwiches can be made especial — topped with ham and an egg — for $12.50.
Both steak and chicken milanesa are available as platters and served with fresh-cut fries for $15-$17.
La Nonna's lomitos steak sandwiches are made with ribeye steak, cheese and optional ham and egg.
Chorizo lovers should try the choripán, an Argentinean street food sandwich that combines chorizo and pan, a crusty bread like a baguette. At La Nonna, it's made with chimichurri, red onion and salsa golf (As the story goes, salsa golf was invented in the 1920s by Nobel laureate and chemist Luis Frederico Leloir, who had grown bored with mayonnaise.).
Pizzas are made with very thin, housemade dough. Toppings lean Italian: arugula, prosciutto and caramelized tomato ($19) or ham, roasted red pepper and black olives ($16).
The dessert menu features two Argentinean classics: chocolate flan ($5) and dulce de leche stuffed in a crepe-like panqueque and served with caramelized seasonal fruit ($6).
For now, La Nonna is open from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and until 10:30 p.m. weekends. The restaurant is closed Mondays, but Caceres hopes to eventually extend to seven days per week.
Ricardo Caceres (left) and chef José Rivero opened La Nonna in Avondale.
And if all goes well, he dreams of expanding to a second restaurant some day.
"It's hard, but I'm loving it," he said of his new career. "We're the manager, server, dishwasher, sweeper. We go home at midnight, sleep five hours, get up and do all the shopping.
"But I'm happy," he said with a big smile. "I'm really happy."
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La Nonna opened April 5 at the corner of Roscoe and Lawndale.
Burgers at La Nonna come on a brioche bun and topped with grilled onion, bacon, tomato and cheddar.
Chef José Rivero built his menu from recipe books he borrowed from his grandmother and his wife's.
The owners of La Nonna spent months creating custom decor and fixtures, including this map of Argentina.