Review: Cristian Pietoso Provides Delightful Wine-and-Dine Pairings at Nicola’s in Over-the-Rhine

Cristian Pietoso has replaced his father, Nic Pietoso, at the helm of Nicola's.

Feb 22, 2023 at 5:11 am
click to enlarge Nicola's is a fine dining treasure in Over-the-Rhine. - Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Photo: Aidan Mahoney
Nicola's is a fine dining treasure in Over-the-Rhine.

I’ve had a soft spot for Nicola’s since I met the original owner and restaurant’s namesake Nic Pietoso a few years ago. Aside from the fact that the Over-the-Rhine place is beautiful, with one of the loveliest dining rooms in the city, I was charmed by the man’s kind attention at a time when my husband was ill. Writing about the restaurant, I interviewed Nic, a committed Buddhist who personified the tradition’s emphasis on generosity and patience, and I probably learned as much about his faith as I did about the operation of his kitchen.

A little under two years ago, Nic’s son Cristian Pietoso replaced his father at the helm of Nicola’s. Cristian was a well-respected chef/owner in his own right, with three successful restaurants here: Via Vite with its prime Fountain Square presence as well as the more casual Forno Osteria in East Hyde Park and Montgomery. According to Cristian, when he purchased Nicola’s, his dad had hit a rough patch in his life, facing not only the death of his beloved wife, Maureen, but also a cancer diagnosis. Happily, though, Cristian now says that Nic is doing just fine and is still active at Nicola’s. More about that later.

Cristian Pietoso’s social media announcement of this winter’s truffle season lit a fire in me to get back to Nicola’s. What better place to indulge in the fleeting pleasures of the world’s most delicious fungus? We made a reservation right away and it was a good thing, too, because the restaurant sold out of its shipment of white truffles within about a week and discovered that it couldn’t get any more this year. 

“The season is over,” Pietoso said the supplier told him.

On a chilly January night, I was a little disappointed that our party of four wasn’t seated in the main dining room, with its vaulted ceiling, spectacular chandelier and enchanting artwork. Instead, we were in a glassed-in side room that felt a bit like an isolated cave. When they added a group of six talkative folks to the space, we started having to shout a bit to hear each other. Next time, I’ll be sure to request another location, perhaps the expansive upstairs dining room or the recently refurbished, heated side patio.  

Our meal started with the restaurant’s deservedly famous bread basket. The impressive variety of tender, tasty rolls, buns and breadsticks went beautifully with cocktails, and we even had a few bites left to go with our first course. Our server shared her enthusiastic suggestions for that and every subsequent course, and most of her recommendations were spot on. I did think her pick of the salads – a bit of melted goat cheese buried under a pile of field greens – was no match for its sister offering: a gorgeous concoction of endive, radicchio and frisée with candied walnuts, pears and creamy gorgonzola dressing. It’s called Insalata Alpina and should not be missed. The Hamachi crudo also was delightful, with refreshingly tart chunks of marinated fish accompanied by velvety morsels of avocado and touches of citrus and chili. 

Cristian Pietoso told me later that his father now runs the restaurant’s wine program. Meanwhile, Cristian, a level one sommelier, is studying for the level two certification awarded by the awesomely named Court of Master Sommeliers.  That adds up to a lot of wine-savvy, as evidenced by an especially broad and deep representation of Italian red wines. Nicola’s website updates the wine list on a regular basis, making it easy for grape lovers to do a little pre-dining research.  But if you’re a more casual wine drinker, there’s always a staffer on duty to help select the perfect accompaniment to your meal. 

Between courses, I took a stroll around the place, where I hadn’t dined since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything looked comfortingly familiar, with a few new enhancements after Cristian came in, such as all-new lighting, major renovations to the private dining room/event space and upgrades to the bar.  On the night we were there the bar was quiet, but a staffer told me it gets busy on weekends and is packed on Monday nights, when the weekly dinner special fills the house (for $17, you get a big plate of pasta with beef-and-veal Bolognese sauce and a salad). 

Neither I nor my companions had the appetite for Chef de Cuisine Josh Brenner’s five-course tasting menu, but I’d be tempted to go back sometime for it after fasting all day. Instead, we gravitated toward pasta and seafood for our main course.  

I made sure to get to Nicola’s while they still had the season’s allotment of fresh truffles, ordering the white truffle risotto – a simple, creamy and decadently rich dish. Alas, the restaurant is not likely to offer that again anytime soon, but you can add black truffle shavings to most of the pastas. Another hit at our table was the Spaghetti “Alla Chittara” Lamb Ragu, an egg-based pasta that was a bit thinner than regular spaghetti. The pasta came out slightly chewy – the way I like it – and the meaty sauce was perfect for a cold winter night.

Wild caught red snapper was the lightest dish among our entrees. The fish was oven-roasted and served with braised escarole, olives, caramelized onions and black pepper beurre blanc – a lovely blend of flavors. The winter menu included several other pastas, such as the Bolognese and the restaurant’s renowned crispy potato gnocchi with four-cheese fondu and black truffle shavings. There were also Alaskan halibut, rack of lamb and prime center-cut beef filet for those not in the mood for pasta.

For dessert, we tried both the chocolate caramel panna cotta and Nicola’s carrot cake, which was a creative riff on the old standby. It really wasn’t that cakey, but its vanilla mousse, rum raisins, praline pecans and ginger carrot jam sent my taste buds into happy overdrive. And I’m never one to turn down panna cotta, one of my favorite desserts.  

Cristian Pietoso said his father is cancer-free now and in a happy relationship: music to my ears. And after a lengthy phone chat with Cristian, I got the same great vibes from him as I did from his dad. After 27 years on Sycamore in Over-the-Rhine, Nicola’s looks to be in great hands for many more years to come.

Nicola’s, 1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine. Info:

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