Nicoletta’s Italian Café, 96 Main St., Cooperstown, 607-547-7499, nicolettasitaliancafe.com. Serving dinner daily 4-10 (later if warranted). AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: traditional Italian
Entrée Price Range: $13 (spaghetti with sausage) to $26 (filet mignon gorgonzola)
Ambiance: classic café
What cuisine marries best with America’s national pastime? You may think hot dogs, of course, but that’s merely a distraction from the game itself. In Cooperstown, a compact and charming city dominated by the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s Italian.
The legacy of Italian-American players aside, it’s a cuisine of comfort, and it lends itself to the American pursuit of excess. While my portion of eggplant parm with a side of sausage wasn’t overlarge, it was generous enough that if I’d had any sense I’d have saved some. But Nicoletta’s Italian Café won’t let you go away hungry. It’s gained through a small Main Street storefront surrounded by memorabilia shops, but its dining areas stretch back and culminate in a charming backyard patio where we dined under shady umbrellas.
Virtually alone, I might add, but that’s because it not only was only 5 PM but also the craziness of the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremonies was behind us. By the time we left, not only did we have patio company, but the indoor dining room was nearly full. That’s because chef-owner Phil Andrews has made sure that the restaurant appeals to locals as well as tourists. It’s open year-round, it’s open every day, its menu remains consistent and, if your server doesn’t know you when you’re seated, you’re nevertheless going to have a new friend by the time you leave.
Andrews took over the café about a decade ago, after having worked there as manager for several years before that. “It was this or go to law school,” he says with a boyish grin that seems almost too happy for someone in this high-pressure business. “I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 15,” he says, “and I studied for a summer at L’Academie de Cuisine in Chevy Chase.”
Although he has kept the look and feel of Nicoletta’s the same, he has tinkered with the menu substantially, enlarging it to include a steak entrée, adding his homemade sausage and recrafting the marinara to a thicker consistency. “We add more fresh herbs to it, too,” he says, “and we put seafood dishes on the menu.” (And be sure to check out Danny’s Main Street Market, which he also owns, and which is right next door, a charming country store with homemade bread, deli meats, specialty products, coffee and more.)
Nicoletta’s two-page menu is impressively unfussy, leading with appetizers like bruschetta paired with tapenade, mozzarella and prosciutto ($10), sautéed mussels ($10), sausage and peppers ($8) and a few salad configurations. The dinner salad, for example, is a $6 mix of greens and grape tomatoes, with cucumber and onion slices, olives and cannellini. Also offered, as a special, was a salad with sliced strawberries, candied walnuts and feta in a light balsamic vinaigrette. My daughter wanted both. And that’s what she ordered, the dinner salad to be served later, as dinner. Fruit works nicely in such a mix. The strawberries in the first anticipated the very different sweetness of the tomatoes in the second, and the walnut-feta combo has more dynamic contrast than the second salad offered—but the strategy was carbs-avoidance.
Not so with my calamari ($10). It’s available sautéed or fried, but I’m also seeking those dynamic contrasts. The crunch in the rings was bright, it was fresh-tasting, the accompanying marinara was almost unnecessary. My wife opted for another appetizer special, a quartet of fried artichoke hearts handsomely served with greens and onion slices and grape tomatoes—and a garlic cream sauce as a ridiculously fine accompaniment. Different breading, but similarly excellent results.
The pasta listing includes spaghetti served with sausage or meatball ($13), ravioli with eggplant cutlets in marinara ($15), tortellini with sausage and spinach and mozzarella ($15) and the classic linguine with clam sauce ($19). On the entrée list are veal or chicken parmigiana ($17), grilled pork tenderloin with penne in a vodka sauce ($20), shrimp with caramelized garlic in a lemon-caper sauce ($17) and a dish of homemade sausage and peppers ($15). Then there’s the “signature entrées” section, where you find veal saltimbocca ($20), filet mignon with fettucine and gorgonzola cream sauce ($26), grilled salmon ($20) and tuna steak ($22).
Easy enough for Susan to choose: chicken marsala ($17) (“Marsala? Is that some kind of a wine?” we heard another table ask itself later.) It is, in fact, a stronger-flavored fortified wine that pairs nicely with meats like chicken and veal (and with egg yolks for zabaglione), served here with a unique combination of mushrooms and spinach, roasted tomatoes and fresh basil, balanced nicely by a not-too-sweet sauce. That eggplant parm I mentioned was also a special ($19), with a large portion of sausage included, all served over spaghetti. Good eggplant prep, the slices sized well and sautéed crisply before succumbing to sauce and cheese.
Our server, Caitlin, is Phil’s sister, and like him worked here under its previous ownership. She has moved around a bit over the years, she told us, but now finds this a good place in which to raise a family. She made the gentle suggestion of tiramisu and cheesecake for dessert; we succumbed. It’s that family-feeling thing that makes it so easy to keep on eating.