Barlow, Ohio has a bridge to nowhere. Just off the intersection of routes 339 and 550 on the fairgrounds, sits a classic, all-American, covered bridge. The kind you’d find on a New England postcard. Long used as a backdrop for engagement photos or senior portraits, the bridge was already iconic in the small village. Recently, however, visits to the area have reported the sweet smell of garlic and basil in the air.
Since June of this year, Nonnie’s LIttle Italian Kitchen has been setting up shop on the bridge every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The brainchild of Haldin Tessum (who does the cooking) and his wife Kelly (who handles the money), Nonnie’s is an Italian-themed “pop-up” restaurant – meaning the kitchen, counter, and seating area are set up in a space for only a short time.
Staple menu items include pasta, Italian sausages, and thick and hearty potato soup. On a recent visit, the standouts were the meatball crumble flatbread, with a soft, chewy base topped with the spicy meatballs, fresh basil, and cheese, and the less traditional poppy slaw salad, which was lightly dressed with apples, dried cranberries, and mandarin oranges. The kitchen also serves up a weekly special; recent options were tortellini with cajun alfredo and the Italian BLT.
Tessum, a bartender by trade and long a staple behind the bar at Applebee’s in Vienna, said he was inspired by the do-it-yourself nature of a pop-up. “I find a new spot and I immerse myself and my kitchen into it,” he said. The small, intimate nature of the space and limited seating allows the Tessums to give friendly, personalized attention to their customers. Haldin’s jovial, easy nature with customers is indicative of his years slinging drinks.
Haldin, a native of Barlow, had been selling his food at community events for some time when he got the inspiration to try setting up something ongoing and semi-permanent. He went to the Barlow fair board with a request to use their famous landmark. “I’ve always loved that bridge,” he said. Thus far, the community has embraced the unique eatery. It doesn’t hurt that outdoor dining and the convenience of take-out were popular amenities this spring.
Like most local businesses, the Tessums have felt the effects of the pandemic on their business. Despite their outdoor location and limited seating, Haldin said that things have been, “feast or famine,” with unpredictable waves of customers followed by long lulls. However, in just the three months since their opening, the Tessums have already garnered a handful of regular customers. In particular, one “happy hour couple” like to purchase two of the spinach artichoke flatbreads each weekend and then post pictures with their cocktails of choice on social media.
Nonnie’s is a true family business in every sense. The name, Kelly said, was a play on the Italian word for grandmother and a reference to the woman who taught her husband to cook. When asked about the decision to focus on Italian cuisine, Haldin pointed to a story about his son. Tasked with writing about his family’s heritage, Haldin asked the boy what he’d learned from his father. They both agreed: he had learned how to cook.
“Heritage is what you know, what your family passes along,” he said. “That’s found in the kitchen.”