10/13/12. I haven’t been to this restaurant in some time, but a source who I trust has told me it has gone way downhill. Please keep this in mind.
Just in time for warmer weather, we head south to McMinnville, where new contributor, Hungry Soul, reviews Nick’s Italian Cafe.
Nick’s Italian Cafe has been around long enough to be considered an institution. Like many institutions, it has gone through good times and bad. Several years ago, a gorgeous eight to ten page spread in Saveur brought renewed interest to this iconic Willamette Valley establishment. For a long time, if you were touring wineries in the Willamette Valley the only decent place to eat in McMinnville was Nick’s. In the last five years or so, Nick has had some lively competitors with Tina’s, the Dundee Bistro, La Rambla and Bistro Maison. Nick Pierano opened the place in the mid-1970’s back when in the valley, northern Italian cuisine was thought of only as spaghetti. His restaurant came of age at the same time as the nascent wine industry – many of the founders of the industry would regularly meet at Nick’s to share successes and sob stories. In the last five years, Nick’s has supported a myriad of chefs, with a fairly stagnant menu. On my first visit, I was confused. Here was this place that had been highly recommended and yet barely registered on my radar of places I wanted to visit again. The fixed price menu of five courses is $45. Over time, I learned to order a la carte and learned that one could get a great steak from Carlton Farms cooked to perfection. But the vegetables (always broccolini for some reason) would be overcooked and soft. This was usually compensated by the ambiance – fairly comfortable after you realize that you are not paying for fancy place settings. A simple environment: a counter like in a diner, some booth seating and some tables. Dark wood and white tablecloths provided the slightly more formal feel, mix-and-match plates and silverware offered a more casual setting. You can still order a la carte from the menu – a habit I started when the servings tended to be a bit bigger and then I could barely eat my steak when I got to it. Now, the servings are more “European” in their sizes, and the five courses are not an overwhelming amount of food. Reservations suggested, but you can always sit at the bar (the stools have no backs though, which I find to be uncomfortable). The wine list was always fabulous, with a good selection of Oregon Pinot Noir producers. A knowledgeable staff would steer us away from wines that weren’t pouring well and towards something that was a good value. It became a comfortable place to go.
Then Nick’s daughter Carmen came on the scene.
Carmen Peirano and her boyfriend Eric Ferguson agreed last August to take over most of the day-to-day operations in 2007. Celebrating thirty years in business, Nick passed the proverbial torch. Carmen recently finished a program at the SF City College’s culinary program and Eric left the highly regarded Quince in San Francisco. The two spent the fall in Italy developing their craft. This was time well spent. I have been eager to find out if all the hubbub was justified.
We dined well. Minor changes have occurred, surely with more to come, mostly in the department of the decor. But the menu is entirely new. Primarily, the food seems authentic. Antipasti of farro, tuna and olive salad – a small serving just to whet the appetite. The balance of the tuna and the olive oil matching the acidity of the black olives harmoniously. Fresh Dungeness Crab with pickled beets and grapefruit. A lively combination with the crab and grapefruit complementing each other. Then Nick’s classic bowl of Minestrone. Not changed too much. Could have been a bit warmer and needed a bit of salt. The pasta course was one that we usually skipped. Tonight, we had the Spinach Ravioli with Sage Butter and the Tagliolini with Manila Clams. Both of these house made pastas were fabulous. I could have eaten the ravioli alone and been satisfied. The simple sauce let the flavor of the sage shine with just a hint of citrus.
The insalate has been updated with two new items. The Green salad with Garlic Rice Wine Vinaigrette had a tangy sweet quality that was a palate cleanser without being too garlicky. The Winter Vegetables in Bagna Cauda consisted of a small selection of radicchio, cauliflower and parsley with a very mild anchovy based sauce. Among the choices for the secundi (and there were many, not a steak among them) the Duck Involtini with Celery Root Puree and Roasted Shallots reminded me of comfortable fall meal after a day outside – the duck, ground and then “stuffed” into a thin layer of its own meat had a pleasant gamy quality to it and blended well with the Celery Root Puree. The Pan Seared Sole with Anchovy Caper Butter and Baby Cavalo Nero prompted a discussion about the benefits of baby kale and the tenderness of the stem. Well executed in this dish; unfortunately, the sole was a bit dry.
We had heard that dessert was a huge change at Nick’s. Gone are the days of the flourless chocolate cake. Hello to Black Pepper Gelato and Saba (a fermented grape must that is poured over the gelato). This was the perfect finish to the meal.
A few weeks later, we returned for a second time were just as pleased. Chicken Liver Mousse Crostini (I had to fight one of my dining partners for it) and a savory Panacotta with Fried Nettle Leaves – incredibly rich – were our starters. This time the pasta options were Fettuccini with Lamb Ragu – just a hint of summer tomatoes, and Spinach Ravioli again. As a secundi, a fabulously moist Monk Fish wrapped in Prosciutto. Why don’t more chefs cook with monk fish? It is such a succulent white fish that has enough of its own flavor it can stand up to something like prosciutto – that only enhances the it. I mistakenly asked to see the dessert menu again, just to see what had changed. Lemon sorbetto and salted caramel gelato grabbed our attention. The sorbetto could have had a bit less sugar and more citrus in it, but the gelato was fabulous. I am not a huge ice cream/gelato fan and ate most of it. A great bottle of St. Innocent – Shea Vineyard 2004 – was a fine complement to the meal
It should be noted the wine list has done nothing but improve. More wines by the glass are now being offered, a great opportunity to try something new. And if Jim is waiting on you, ask his advice regarding any wine choice. He has strong opinions about what to drink and when, but he is clearly a man who loves the stuff and is happy to share knowledge with you if you just ask.
“The Hungry Soul grew up in a cooking family where no meal was ever good enough. The Hungry Soul likes to feed not just the physical body, but the mental one with books and good conversation. The Hungry Soul believes that sharp kitchen knives make great anniversary gifts and that flasks should be issued to all parents at the birth of their first child.”