Urban provincialism is an interesting thing. Over and over we hear people inside the loop dismiss anything north of LBJ or lodged in the mid-cities. Much more difficult, it seems, to navigate an unbending multi-lane highway than suffer the halting drive on Oak Lawn Avenue. So they miss out on David McMillan's brilliant cuisine at 62 Main in Colleyville. They never park alongside the monotonous strip centers of Addison to experience Chris Svalesen's creative flair at Go Fish. A voyage to distant Plano? Forget it.
Ah, but Nicola's Ristorante, a former Galleria mainstay reborn way up north in the Shops at Legacy, also stands as a counterpoint to the "214" mentality.
This is a vibrant spot. Suburban renditions of pretty people flit about the bar. Conversation and clanking glasses and the disarray of kitchen noise play steadily in the background. Behind the bar and maitre d' stand, patrons walk into a visual cacophony, an architectural menagerie of pillars and curtains, intimate nooks and big open spaces, tables arrayed in a linear fashion and a series of booths that pinwheel from the room's center. There's an open kitchen along the back wall and a bright antipasti case propped directly opposite the bar. Wood, wrought iron, fabric, glass--lots to look at, particularly from the mezzanine.
Antipasti misto della casa $12
Calamari fritti $9
Casarecci alla Bolognese $12
Dentice al Forno con carciofi $22
Costoletta alla Milanese $27
Torta al Caf $7
Cannoli Siciliano $7
The design promises hip cuisine, perhaps a bit over the top. But if you expect busy plates, dominant spices or exciting new regional fusions, you'll end up horribly disappointed. Chef Sascia Marchesi relies almost solely on fresh ingredients and simple presentations.
Flair? Try dentice al forno con carciofi. In English that's red snapper with artichoke hearts. It's not truly elaborate, just a beautiful red snapper grilled to a firm, flaky state, finished in the wood-burning oven and sprinkled with a few grains of salt. A couple moments soaking up secondhand smoke lends an indistinct campfire essence. The fish sits in a thin glaze of strangely hued lemon butter. Roasted red bell pepper incorporated into the melted butter discolors the sauce--best described as an off-pink--and distorts the tart citrus into something bitter, almost acrid. When spread on a piece of snapper, though, the sharp contrast allows the fish to stand out even more. But that's as close to outlandish as we found at Nicola's.
Marchesi never pushes a recipe much beyond the bounds of authenticity. His menu strays up and down the peninsula, with buffalo mozzarella from the south, a chicken scaloppini dish drawn from the area around Rome and a beef fillet seasoned to mimic the flavors of Tuscany. For the most part, however, menu items linger in the northern climes of Italy. After all, Marchesi was born near Milan and learned to cook at his mother's restaurant. His costoletta alla Milanese reflects that region's knack for, well, dipping things in breadcrumbs. It's a delicate center cut of veal, drenched in crumbs mixed with fresh basil, thyme and rosemary, then pan fried. Think chicken-fried steak with greens and tomatoes instead of pasty white gravy. But don't stretch the comparison too far. This is surprisingly subtle for pan-fried food and memorable for melt-in-your-mouth veal. We actually cut slices with a fork. He shows off mastery of a more familiar northern style with casarecci alla Bolognese, a shallow bowl of pasta covered by a hearty meat sauce and topped with cheese. Baths of meat and tomatoes are known by folks on the boot as ragu. Americans trained on jars of thin red corporate gruel will instantly recognize this dish. Since childhood we've poured it from cans marked Chef Boyardee and jars bearing the name Ragu. But forget all that. Nicola's blends a hefty portion of quality beef with a base of reduced red wine, fresh herbs and good tomatoes. There's nothing overwhelming, nothing pronounced, no sodium overload. Slow cooking blends herbs--rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme and sage--into a single sensation. The tomato sauce reeks of tomatoes. As a whole, it's simple, a bit savory and quite comfortable.
Of course, in this case they top the thing with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Nice touch.
We sampled three pasta dishes on our visits, each cooked to a perfect al dente. Panzerotti, thin sheets stuffed with veal and Swiss chard, yielded a balance of sharp and mellow flavors almost akin to a bite of blue cheese. The pasta is substantial: tacky with an almost granular presence. They make it all in-house, of course, on a machine purchased in Italy. In fact, Marchesi brought much of the restaurant's cookware from overseas.
Pollo e carciofi lasagnette, or lasagna with chicken and artichoke heart, benefited from a decadent filling of ricotta and pecorino. Unfortunately, sour bites of artichoke and the outstanding creaminess of the combined cheeses overwhelmed nuggets of chicken laced throughout the lasagna. The meat merely added a firm texture to the dish.
Fortunately, the restaurant doesn't miss often. And there's always something else to appease disappointed patrons. So chicken was a bland addition to the lasagna? Well, the other fillings stood out. The antipasti platter included a lackluster tuna-stuffed tomato wedge. Otherwise it contained a compelling array of contrasting flavors, from sour to sweet. The New Zealand green mussels--yes, a break from authenticity--draped with white anchovies cured in particularly tart brine zings your tongue.
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Desserts are somewhat mundane, although a watermelon puree sparked the Sicilian-style cannoli and one of our female companions swooned over a torta al café.
A calamari appetizer seemed ordinary. Similar to fried rings served elsewhere, it was mostly a vehicle for two dipping sauces. Try the carpaccio, instead. Thicker than expected but with a silky texture and subtle flavor welcoming the sharp sting of capers, it's a beautiful start. Or settle for the more prosaic insalata caprese. Thick slabs of fresh buffalo mozzarella separate slices of tomato, the whole drizzled with olive oil and basil.
Yeah, it's served elsewhere. But remember, little things matter. Fresh ingredients, for one. With little cold storage space, Nicola's must order twice a day from vendors and Marchesi sometimes wanders into markets searching for mint or sage or whatever he needs. Does it make a difference gathering cookware in Italy? When electric slicers heat up they melt, ever so slightly, the delicate layer of fat on thin cuts of prosciutto. So Nicola's picked up a hand-cranked machine. Does service matter? While waiting for our table on one visit we overheard a woman seated near the bar complain about a vent blowing a steady blast of cold air. The manager immediately adjusted the temperature. Even when slammed by walk-ins from nearby Angelika Film Center, maitre d's address the situation with great poise. Waitstaff may stumble over a pronunciation or two, but they answer questions honestly and offer reasonable wine recommendations. And really, does hiring an Italian guy to run the kitchen matter? As a teenager Marchesi worked in his mother's kitchen and the place earned two Michelin stars. He arrived in this country 11 years ago, accepting a job as executive sous chef for the Italian pavilion at Disney's Epcot Center. Then he jumped to the highly regarded Donatoni's in Hawaii. In other words, his native cuisine is all he knows.
And that's reason enough for a quick trip up the Tollway. 5800 Legacy Drive, Suite C1, Plano, 972-608-4455. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.