Short Orders: Nicola's
Consistency is the sweeping corner at Monza known as the Parabolica--a deceptive right hand turn, it's fastest line lurking somewhere just beyond each apex. Miss this line and the race car seems to teeter, as if fighting for balance on the edge of a cliff.
When it opened several years ago, Nicola's--yes, hence the Italian racing reference--was a surprising tandem of simple yet vibrant dishes. There were also justifiably proud of their antipasti, with meats carved by a slicer imported from the old country. But so many restaurants develop little problems, start to take things for granted, snip away at food cost by shorting things here or there...and begin to twitch and strain through the Parabolica.
In this case, the restaurant brought in a new chef, Luciano Salvadore. Not that there's anything wrong with the changeover, or with Nicola's as it enters middle age in restaurant years. Well, take that back--a pasta dish was inexcusably overcooked on one recent visit. And the antipasto misto della casa seemed so much, um, wimpier than on some of my past excursions: a couple razor shavings of mortadella, two and a half equally thin bits of proscuitto, small crumbles of Parmigiano Reggiano and parched mozzarella.
On the other hand, the meat was hearty in flavor, the marinated vegetables stood out and, really, an antipasto platter can be whatever the restaurant wishes it to be. They still serve one of the most straightforward and pleasing Bolognese sauces in the city. When one of my guests issued an impromptu order--this pasta with that sauce, and can you throw on some shrimp--the answer was an immediate "no problem." The kitchen even erred to the side of too many shellfish.
Service and atmosphere have never been problems at this well-placed Legacy restaurant. They obviously still work hard to please guests. Following a change at the helm in 2007, however, the kitchen appears to be running off line--slightly off line, mind you, but that's a troubling thing.
Nicola's always stood apart from the other area Italian destinations. And consistency is, after all, one of the biggest problems restaurants face.