5704 Oleander Drive #102
Prices: $3 – $26
I’d be lying if I didn’t say Italian cuisine has a special place in my stomach, forever and always. I adore the simplicity of a well-made red sauce, the authenticity of house-made pasta, the fresh anise-citrus fusion of basil, and the creamy, silky subtlety of fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
Often as a child, I daydreamed of living with an Italian family, wherein feasts were made among much screaming and yelling, and then indulged among a group effort of love and appreciation. Alas, I got the family dynamics, only under the guise of Southern soul food.
Nicola’s Italian Restaurant off Oleander Drive welcomes anyone who appreciates the delicacy of freshly made breads, mozzarella, pastas and sausage, all with love and family at the core. Chef Nick Pittari runs the kitchen not only with a fine-tuned culinary hand but with the knowledge to make genuine cuisine born from his familial roots in Sicily. If anything, he knows how to feed customers well and with care.
The restaurant’s decor goes more modern than rustic, as brightly illuminated windows shower customers in effervescent neon during sunny days. Though it may seem a far cry from Italy’s ancient, traditional mien, the food maintains a “grandmother’s kitchen” heartiness full of fanciful appeal. Starting the meal with Nicola’s shrimp, mussels and clams in white wine and garlic sauce will only be overshadowed by sopping up the juice with their homemade loaves of bread, each crusty exterior perfectly encasing a soft cushion of dough. The 16/20 shrimp pop with every bite, indicating a perfectly cooked temperature, while the mussels and clams offer a brackish taste perfectly accentuated with every spoonful of the garlicky, light sauce.
Mozzarella sticks come homemade, not frozen and rubbery. That Nicola’s makes their mozzarella means the golden fried pieces taste delightfully gooey and sweet when dipped in homemade marinara—a deep red sauce, showcasing the tomatoes as the star. The flavor isn’t masked by spices and herbs, only accentuated by them.
The most impressive pasta dish at the restaurant comes in the form of Chef Nick’s manicotti. I admit to being completely thrown off guard by my adoration for this dish, as manicotti normally doesn’t excite me. Oftentimes heavy, it can weigh down the palate; however, Nick’s care toward making light crepes rather than using heavy pasta shells transforms my outlook entirely. The dish remains airy, almost fragile, as the fork slides through each bite like a knife through butter. The ricotta’s fluff and tang come through with unassuming appeal.
To sate rich palates, the filet mignon beef tips over risotto brings texture to the forefront of desire. The supple beef practically melts into an earthy and rich yet lean flavor, which becomes much more hearty when paired with creamy, full-bodied risotto. The arborio rice soaks up the parmesan, cream and butter like a sponge, making the dish ample and sumptuous.
Dessert at Nicola’s exceeds expectations beyond mere tiramisu; the Bianco e Nero finishes the dining experience as something truly special. Chef Nick notes the dessert a Sicilian specialty, even a tradition at birthdays and anniversaries over the standard cake. The pastries are filled with a delightful cream that’s not too heavy nor too sweet. What really sets them off is the chocolate-hazelnut mousse they’re rolled in, which gives an extra flavor of royal decadence. If anything, dessert will bring diners back to Nicola’s again and again.
The restaurant embraces family and food, offering family-style dinners on Sundays for parties of four or more, starting at 3 p.m. They also do special dinners, one even a 17-course meal—yes, 17 courses! Items such as chicken carbonara, served in a rich cream sauce, with prosciutto, pancetta and onion, as well as shrimp parmesan, wood-fired pizzas and delightfully crisp salads, such as their arugula, apple and goat cheese in champagne vinaigrette, all make the menu at Nicola’s varied. And something any Sicilian grandma would be proud of.