Nicola’s, run by the Pietoso family (who also runs Via Vite on Fountain Square), is a staple of Cincinnati cuisine. Known for its fine Italian cuisine, it’s won countless awards from Cincinnati Magazine, Zagat’s, The Cincinnati Enquirer and Mobil. The building itself is on Sycamore Street in Over the Rhine, which formerly housed railcars from the adjacent inclines and has been repurposed into an elegant, two-story restaurant. Nicola Pietoso warmly welcomes his guests into his restaurant – one of the most affable general managers I’ve met – and ensures that each and every one of them is having a fantastic time with a fantastic meal.
Despite having been a resident of Over the Rhine for more than a year, I hadn’t yet tried Nicola’s. One of my readers continually e-mailed me and asked, “Why haven’t you gone to Nicola’s? What do you have against Nicola’s!?” So finally, I got the opportunity recently to get a taste of Nicola’s when Cincinnati EATS played host to its quarterly dinner at this Italian eatery. Cincinnati EATS is a local organization geared toward young professionals that plays host to a dinner at a local, independently owned restaurant. The dinners take place on an off night for a reduced price. Generally, the price is around $35 and includes three courses. Some of the proceeds benefit local charities. (The Nicola’s dinner benefited the Peaslee Neighborhood Center.) Great food, great price, great people and a great charity? What’s not to like?
I didn’t have the full menu choice, but instead got a taste of their winter menu. The table was set with bread – sticks, ciabatta and small rolls topped with slices of onion and zucchini – a delicious way to start the meal. We continued with a spring green salad with pan-fried goat cheese, pistachios and a raspberry vinaigrette – a light start to the meal, with rich goat cheese contrasted by the slightly sweet and tangy dressing. This is the sort of salad I could eat every day.
The six-hour braised short ribs were beautifully presented on a bed of parsnip puree (which essentially tastes like a potato puree), with a couple of perfectly presented carrots on the side. A focus on in-season root vegetables is rich and satisfying, exactly what you want on a cold evening. The braised short ribs were falling-apart tender (as they should be), bathed in demi-glace. I would order this again in a heartbeat. These were the best prepared short ribs I’ve had locally.
For dessert, we were presented with a flourless chocolate cake inverted onto a pool of creme anglaise, dotted with mint and raspberry jelly – like the Italian flag. It was very rich and in a small portion – just enough to take care of your sweet tooth.
I was very impressed by Nicola’s handling of the 100 plus people – everything came out at the correct temperature, no one at the table was left waiting for food or wine, and everyone else seemed content. And I’m looking forward to trying it as just a romantic dinner for two. If you go Monday through Thursday, Nicola’s offers a chef’s choice tasting menu ($85, $115 with wine pairings), a three-course tasting menu ($50, $70 with wine pairings) or a four-course tasting menu ($60, $85 with wine pairings). It’s a great way to check out the menu at a reduced price.
As for Cincinnati EATS, mark your calendar for Feb. 24. Hugo’s Chef Sean Daly will present a tasting menu for $40, with the charity yet to be announced. See you there!
Photography: Julie Niesen