Restaurant review: Nicola Restaurant & Bar

  • Photo by Jodi Miller
From the November 3, 2011 edition

Walking home from last Saturday’s wild Buckeye win, these thoughts swarmed my brain like those ecstatic fans racing onto the field: This football season actually matters again and, hey, I’ve got duck pappardelle in my fridge!

Of course the victory was largely due to Braxton Miller, but the celebratory pappardelle leftovers were courtesy of the impressive Nicola Restaurant & Bar. Except for its signage, the brand new Nicola — which takes over the former Cibo space — highly resembles its predecessor. There’s the same smart-but-not-stuffy white tableclothed set up with fun chandeliers and a soundtrack in love with Sinatra; and there’s the same cozy bar and party-time communal table ably warmed by a flickering hearth.

What’s different is Nicola Bedalli, the eponymous Italian-born and French-trained chef/owner. Put simply, Bedalli presents his culinary vision on one of the most inviting Italian menus in town, one starring a wealth of lovely handmade pastas. While Bedalli’s roots are proudly European, his time in the U.S. (he arrived here in 2000) has taught him how to please Americans, too (Bedalli was formerly chef at Vittoria’s in Powell). In other words, at Nicola, expect huge portions of authentically flavored saucy delights that rarely err on the sides of subtle or understated. And expect a lot of earthy and rich entrees often accommodatingly priced in the mid-teens.

To drink, a potent old-school Negroni ($9) is a reliable vehicle to limber up the taste buds. For cheap dinnertime sips, the smallish, Italian-centric wine list has serviceable “everyday quaffs” sold for $6 per glass (like a nice little Chianti or a chewier Nero D’Avola).

Appetizer-wise, the Suppli di Risotto ($6, cuts above fried rice-and-cheese croquettes garnished with a rich pesto and tart marinara) are crowd pleasers, but “daring” liver lovers will dig the straightforward Crostini de Fegatini ($6, homemade chicken pate spread on super-crunchy toast). My favorite antipasto was the elegant Involtini di Zucchine ($5 and only available in the bar area) — arugula-topped cylinders of a creamy ricotta and walnut melange bound in thin, grilled zucchini wrappers.

The aforementioned Pappardelle all’Anatra ($16) was a dish of beautiful, handmade, wide, thick and perfectly al dente noodle ribbons strewn with tons of tender duck confit clumps in a refined if chunky and wine-inflected ragu. This serves-two-sized dinner wasn’t good; it was exceptional.

Another meaty marvel was the Braciole di Manzo ($18). A sort-of purse fashioned out of pounded-thin beef held coins of a soft cheesy stuffing plus a wallet of Italian deli meats (I tasted plenty of spicy capicola). Also on the plate were great homemade spaghetti, a lusty and long-cooked, tangy and rich tomato sauce and a nifty side of haricots vert with roasted red pepper bits.

More pretty handmade pasta — voluminous tubes of it — arrived with the Cannelloni Brasatti ($16). But while those encased logs of an interesting meat/veggie/wine mixture, my palate was overwhelmed by the heavily nutmegged bechamel sauce swamping the plate.

On the lighter side was an eye-catching platter of four fresh-tasting, big-boy diver scallops atop an addictive, green oniony and sharp cheesy veggie risotto (Capesante alla Saltimbocca, $22). Riffing on a popular veal preparation, the succulent and expertly seared shellfish were wrapped in prosciutto (but missing their sage leaves) and treated to a duo of attention-grabbing sauces: a true Italian salsa verde (brash and mustardy) and a counterbalancing sweet balsamic and pomegranate glaze.

With a fast start like this, Nicola won’t need a last-minute touchdown pass to make my best new restaurants list.