Amy Culbertson, staff reporter, the Cincinnati Post
The best restaurant experiences lift you out of your daily existence for a while and make you feel you're privileged and special for an evening.
Restaurants where you can have such an experience in Cincinnati are few, but Nicola's in Over-the-Rhine is one of them.
Plenty of restaurants hereabouts want to pretend they're in that league, studding their menus with all the current buzzwords and making much of pretentious little service rituals like placing the guests' napkins on their laps for them. They want the trappings of sophistication, but they don't want to expend the money, the effort, or the commitment it takes to follow through all the way.
Nicola's does. Owner Nicola Pietoso clearly knows what a big-city restaurant is supposed to be like and what it takes to keep it that way. He's unobtrusive but omnipresent; no detail escapes him. He knows the regulars' names and makes first-timers welcome; if he feels it necessary, he'll show the chefs in the kitchen how he wants it done as well...
What I like best about the food here, perhaps, is that, despite its sophistication and refinement, it always tastes like real food, food that might have come from the stove of an inspired home cook.
Take the eggplant flan appetizer, for example ($8.95): with its meltingly cooked eggplant slices enclosing a rich custard of ricotta, Parmesan, and mozzarella, touched with an herbal tomato sauce, it's the most comforting dish imaginable...
I often find cold appetizers more compelling than hot ones, and Nicola's really comes through in this area. Cold crabmeat, which I adore, is hard to find locally, but here it was at Nicola's, pristinely mounded over vibrant greens and accented with teeny orange segments and a light, fragrant citrus dressing ($8.95).
Bresaola--Italian dried beef--is another hard-to-find favorite of mine, and it's perfectly served here with nutty-sharp arugula leaves, olive oil, black pepper, and curls of aged Parmesan ($7.95)...
It's hard enough choosing among the pastas, from the inspired simplicity of wide, supple pappardelle noodles with sautéed rapini greens and browned garlic cloves ($17.95), to the season-bridging handmade tortellini with a Bolognese five-meat stuffing, in a truffle cream sauce strewn with spring asparagus and peas, a special one night...
And you may be surprised to find the rosy-cooked filet of beef ($22.95) surrounded by a wide bowl of rustic tomato-and-rosemary-scented white beans--though it makes perfect sense when you recall that Tuscany is known both for its beef and for its beans.
There's something for everybody here: veal-lovers will be happy with the lemony, tender scaloppine ($18.95), or the classic saltimbocca, sandwiching prosciutto and melted cheese with sage ($19.95); duck-lovers with the rich breast bathed in a nutty sauce involving pureed raisins and pine nuts, atop a soft mound of polenta that is comfort incarnate ($20.95).
But, if I had to pick the most stunning entrée, it might well be the gorgeous sea scallops ($23.95), darkly seared almost to a glaze and succulent within, jumbled with caramelized Brussels sprouts and shiitake mushrooms in a concentrated balsamic-truffle drizzle. Flavors just don't get much deeper than this.
Thank goodness, after a meal like this, that the dessert list is Italian, which means you can end on a sweet note without having to consume something heavy.
You might have the strawberry-studded lemon tart, with its smooth lemon curd-like filling in a sweet hazelnut-tinged crumb crust, or the ethereal panna cotta ("cooked cream") in a pool of intense strawberry puree.
There are ports and grappas, but for something really astounding ask for an apéritif of passito--a sweet, smooth raisiny wine made from semi-dried grapes. It's a worthy end to a meal this special.