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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Always Welcome Here

By B.A. Nilsson

There’s a dogged neighborhood-liness about this stretch of Delaware Avenue that continues to support the kinds of business that in many other communities are crushed by the leviathans out at the malls. I’m thinking of stores like Andy’s and Cardona’s, and, of course, Nicole’s. It’s probably no accident that these all are named with a possessive “s.” An owner is watching over the place, which doesn’t happen when your headquarters are in, say, Scottsdale, Ariz.

In the case of Nicole’s, you’re watched by founder Margaret Carciobolo, who, with her husband James Gavin, keeps the restaurant humming in much the same way it’s been run for its 20-plus years of existence—a statistics-busting record in this volatile industry.

Like many other successful restaurants, Nicole’s pursues a catering business, good for both the bottom line and keeping the name before the public. But it’s also their time- tested menu of Northern and Southern Italian fare that has won a loyal following.

“If you want to leave your daughter at my house,” a friend of ours suggested, “and let her play with my kids, you two could . . . ” But we were halfway to the restaurant by then. Once we got there, we dined without bickering. Maybe we’re growing up.

Or maybe it’s the engaging welcome we received. First from a server who caught me contemplating parking in the wrong lot and directed me elsewhere (Nicole’s has been plagued by the problem for most of its existence), then from the servers inside who immediately greeted and made sure we were seated promptly.

It was an early dinner for us, but the restaurant already was filling. Opposite the bar, which dominates the front half of the dining area, are several tables, and then the room opens into a larger area towards the back, where we were seated.

Even with some late-afternoon light coming in, the place has a subdued feel. The dark tin ceiling is strung with tiny lights; the walls sport classic artwork.

Cruising down the appetizers list, we felt the friendly call of seafood items. Clams casino ($10), fried calamari ($9), and grilled shrimp ($11), which is a Nicole’s specialty. This isn’t to impugn the hazelnut-crusted brie ($9) or bruschetta ($6), of course. But when we reached Nicole’s Hot Antipasto for Two ($19) and saw the promise of the seafood mentioned above, along with much more, we needed no more convincing.

What makes the grilled shrimp so good? Horseradish and pancetta, set off by a bite of lemon. There’s pancetta in the stuffed mussels, too, transforming an ingredient that’s tasty enough by itself into an even more flavorful nugget enhanced by sundried tomatoes and bourbon cream.

Another component is eggplant roulade, in which the veg is rolled with smoked mozzarella and roasted red peppers. Even more roasted red peppers are served as separate selection, with crisp broccoli alongside.

Although the warm spinach salad ($9) is tempting, you’ll get a house salad with an entrée, and it’s a fine array of fresh greens with a house dressing (easy to guess what kind).

The entrée selection is almost dizzying. It’s certainly thorough. Divided into the categories pasta, poultry, seafood, veal, grilled and vegetarian, enhanced with daily specials, it’s enough to let you dine here weekly for nearly a year without choosing the same thing twice.

Not surprisingly, there’s overlap. Vegetarian items lurk in the pasta column; there’s pasta in the poultry and seafood on the grill. But you have to compartmentalize a menu this lengthy somehow. Stuffed steak ($32) is a grilled specialty with shrimp and prosciutto inside. A grilled filet mignon is $30 and comes with a caramelized onion demi glaze. Veal parmigiana ($21) is a longstanding favorite, although veal Theresa ($26) gets the “Nicole’s specialty” asterisk: It’s a battered scallopine layered with mozzarella and prosciutto.

There’s shrimp a-plenty in the seafood listing: Order it served with clams ($22); with clams, scallops and mussels (Fra Diavolo, $30); with clams, scallops, mussels and calamari (zuppa di pesce, $30); or on its own (Arrabiatta or Genovese, $22). Or you can have it as described in the pasta list, prepared with scallops and served over fettuccini with a four-cheese topping ($27). That was the entrée I chose, a more-than-filling selection. After all, it relies on butter for much of its appeal, which means you’re scooping up sauce with the bread that’s served with dinner. The scallops are more notable for their large size than sweet flavor, but work well in the context of a dish like this. And the contrast between the wide, cheese-laden fettuccine noodles and the crunchy shrimp gives this entrée its punch.

Vegetarian items include eggplant parmigiana ($15) or eggplant stuffed with goat cheese and spinach ($17); linguini with greens and beans ($15); and two preparations of mushroom ($20).

In the poultry department you’ll find roasted duck ($28) with a sauce of the day, chicken coated with hazelnuts in a Frangelico cream ($19) and, of course, chicken parmigiana ($17). We ordered one of the day’s specials, a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and cheese, served with a cream sauce ($23), but found it surprisingly undistinguished—bland, in fact, in spite of the promise of all that was in or on top of it.

Some well-chosen wine with dinner and an excellent tiramisu for dessert (with a cappuccino, for me, to round out the meal) and we were nicely reminded why it was we started dating in the first place. It was fun to be together, and a restaurant like this enhances the experience.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Saratoga Arts Fest has a full weekend ahead of dance, music, theater and more, celebrating the city’s long history as haven for artists (the horses sometimes obscure the bigger picture). Tonight (Thursday) is a kickoff event: the ArtsFest Prelude, an evening of wine tasting, good food, and art previews, running from 6 to 8 PM at Universal Preservation Hall at 25 Washington St. Sponsored by Putnam Wine and Putnam Market, the event features hors d’oeuvres and a dessert table crafted by the market, as well as a bounty of fine wines from around the world, including California’s Cartlidge & Brown and Ridge Vineyards, Murphy’s Law from Washington, South Africa’s Mulderbosch Vineyards and Graham Beck Wines, Australia’s Long Flat Vineyards and Madfish Wine, Baby del Rey from France, and such renowned French specialties as Taittinger champagne and Château La Tour Haut Brion. It’s priced at $75 per person, which also lets you buy a weekend ARTSPASS at a $5 discount. For reservations or more information, call 580-5618. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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