Summer at Ristorante Nicola

Last week, I ventured up Preston Road to check out Italian eatery Ristorante Nicola‘s special summer menu. About 11 dishes later, I had to proclaim that it was, indeed, quite special.

But, first, some background: I’m an Italian food fiend. I attribute it to my Brooklyn roots (fine, I only lived there till I was 1. Shush.), so what I’ve always loved the most is mom-and-pop, red tablecloth, red-sauce Italian-American fare. You know, the rich, resplendent chicken parm, the manicotti brimming with ricotta, the cannelloni stuffed with spicy sausage — the kind you get in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco’s North Beach. Sadly, I’ve yet to find anyplace that serves up just that kind of grub — Dallas chefs seem to veer toward aiming for authentic Italian-from-Italy food or fanciful Italian fusion, with varying success.

Happily, Italian-born Chef Luigi Iannuario finds a delicious middle ground, appeasing Italian food purists with heavenly house-made pastas topped, filled or accompanied by out-of-the-ordinary combos (walnut-crusted lamb chops, Alaskan cod with cream of sweet onions), and enticing fans of familiar faves with approachable hits like caprese, fried calamari and veal scallopine, all of it delicious.

My evening opened with a special bruschetta that featured chopped fresh beets with crumbles of goat cheese atop a crostini. Now, I’m a fan of neither beets nor goat cheese, but when I popped this little bite into my mouth, it sang! The cheese kind of melted over the beets, and the crunch of the crostini added some terrific texture. Win!

Next, we moved on with the aforementioned calamari fritti (above), lightly breaded and fried to tender perfection … and none of those creepy little mini-squids some places throw into the mix. Ack!

The seafood was presented with a pizza-like focaccia Nicola (above), a rosemary flatbread topped with parm-regg and pecorino cheeses and baked. WHY did they start us off with this?! A too-tempting starch to fill up the belly before the mains even appeared?! Hell, before the salad appeared? Gack! But I couldn’t stop reaching for a slice of the stuff.

Our third app (yep, this gon’ be a looong post) was the classic prosciutto e meloni, super thin slices of salty Parma ham curled over planks of cantaloupe and served with grissini and pistachio-coated ricotta. I’d forgotten how great this simple salty-sweet pairing could be.

I will go ahead and just skip the photo and discussion about the insalata di tonno (salad with ahi tuna) we had … which I requested well-done instead of seared. Bad foodie, BAD! And this concludes the appetizer hour.

On to the meaty stuff. Kind of — a bowl of fusilli Nicola (above) and a black cod piccata (below) were whisked to the table, where they fought for my attention.

Although the outstanding black cod was sauteed to a T, sitting in a pool of white wine, lemon and caper sauce, the fusilli won my heart. The spiral pasta was unlike any other fusilli I’d seen — a testament to its handmade qualities. It was bathed in a mascarpone-white wine sauce with plump shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and baby arugula stirred into it. I’ll take a moment of silence now to recall this entree. Ommm. Utensils were clinking, vying for the next forkful of this creamy plate of delish: the shrimp burst in my mouth at the slightest nibble, the pasta was light yet still toothsome and the sauce … that sauce was bath-worthy. But it was time to move on …

Chef Luigi delivered the special meat dish of the night, describing it with his special Italian accent. Porco buco was a braised shank resting on pillowy gnocchi swimming in a Barolo wine sauce. The flesh, tender and pliant; the gnocchi, wet and fluffy; the sauce, tart and velvety. Ahhh, an opera on the tongue. Somewhere a fat lady wasn’t singing, but eating.

Good thing, because the curtains couldn’t close without dessert! So a mere 11 hours after we were seated our server dropped this one-two punch on us:

Panna cotta afloat in a sea of Nutella (top) and an apple tart with gelato. Let’s observe this moment as the first time I’ve had a panna cotta I’ve really loved. Rather than being too airy and almost spongy like so many I’ve had, it was … well, custardy and solid. And I love Nutella enough to marry it, so enough about that. The apple tart was a little less loveable in my book, but, mmmm — dipping that gelato in the Nutella? Now you can sing, fat lady.

Overall, the service at Nicola was sharp without being cloying, the atmosphere richly well-appointed without being stuffy, and the cuisine wondrous and welcoming.

FYI, Nicola serves weekday lunch and an after-work happy hour, too.