It's always intriguing to watch restaurants evolve over time. Nicola's, which opened in 1996, bringing fine dining and authentic Italian cuisine to downtown, this year took some big steps forward, redesigning its kitchen, upgrading stemware, furniture and lighting, revamping its menu and changing its chef. Now overseeing the kitchen is Cristian Pietosa, son of owner Nicola Pietosa, back from four years abroad working in restaurants in Italy and most recently, London's upscale Savoy Hotel.
For starters, we went for a special, Inzimino ($10), something I'd never tried before. Our server described it as squid sautéed with spinach and served on crostini — conjuring up yummy visions of fresh, lightly tossed, delicately sautéed ingredients. While what arrived at our table was tasty, it had been cooked down to a heavy color and thick, gluey consistency. (Post-meal research revealed that inzimino, a Florentine specialty, is typically stewed for a half-hour or more, not sautéed.) I definitely would not have ordered this heavy dish on a muggy Cincinnati summer night had it been described more accurately by our server.
By comparison, our second appetizer was positively ethereal. The Fresh Artichoke Soufflé with Goat Cheese Sauce ($11) was served just out of the oven.
Perfectly cooked, with small bits of fresh artichoke contrasting nicely to the soft texture of the soufflé, this was light and delicious.
For my entrée, I ordered the Housemade Tagliatelle with Shrimp "Ragout," Baby Clams and Basil-Infused Zucchini Sauce ($24). This turned out to be very tasty, with finely diced and very lightly cooked shrimp and vegetables scattered over fresh noodles, and accented with a light sauce. Playfully named (a ragout is typically a heavily cooked stew), it was refreshing and perfect for a summer supper.
My companion ordered the Homemade Cannelloni Filled with Ground Veal, Beef and Parmeggiano ($19). Freshly prepared, with light crêpes enveloping an ample amount of ground meat in a rich tomato sauce, this is a signature dish of Nicola's. To my taste it was a bit too heavy, with the coarsely ground meat inside too abrupt a contrast with the airy thinness of the crêpes. I'd love to see Nicola's offer a lighter, less masculine version of this.
Desserts were excellent, a testimony to Cristian Pietosa's stint as a pastry chef at the Savoy Hotel. The Chocolate Fondent with Chocolate Ganache and Crème Anglaise ($10) was superb. This rich, warm chocolate creation, firm on the outside, molten chocolate on the in, was served with a scoop of ice cream. We also ordered a special, a Lemon Tart with Fresh Berries ($9). This was a perfect mix of sweet and tart, with a buttery crust and fresh strawberries and raspberries. I'd go back just for dessert and coffee some night.
Inside, the restaurant is open and spacious, with high ceilings, exposed beams and brick walls (the building used to house streetcars). Suspended clock faces are another nod to history — the Verdin Bell and Clock Company was located just a few blocks away. However, brightly colored paintings clash with the earth tones and dark colors. My guest, a jet-setting designer just back from a trip to Athens, griped about the restaurant's entrance. From the bland lobby, which Nicola's shares with a bank and some small offices, it's hard to tell at first where the restaurant even is. There is an outside patio for use during nice weather.
Unfortunately, the service was disappointing. Our dining experience got off to a tepid start when I had to request bread (two tables seated well after us got bread first), and then olive oil for dipping (we got only butter, when other tables were offered both). Although things improved during the meal, with good timing on courses and water glasses being refilled like clockwork, there were other off notes: Our waiter somewhat rudely interrupting our animated table conversation in order to pitch us dessert.
Minor transgressions? Perhaps not, but they add up. With Nicola's artfully presented entrées now mostly in the $20 to $30 range, my expectations have been raised. I expect better — an effortlessness professionalism, respectfulness and anticipation of guests' needs that is at the heart of fine dining. That was not fully present on our visit. Now more than ever, Nicola's needs to focus on the fundamentals, making sure its service consistently matches and supports its upscale menu and pricing. ©
Go: 1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: Moderate to Expensive
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Numerous seafood options.
Accessibility: On-street parking and valet parking available. The restaurant is fully accessible.