The crust on our hot lunchtime pizza was chewy and firm the firmness a must under its heavy cargo of string-trailing mozzarella, Parmesan and goat cheese but what struck us most was the crust's oblong shape, like a stretched egg. There's something refreshing and reassuring about a pizza that isn't a compass-traced circle. It shows that human hands, not a stamping machine, worked the dough.
Such human touches abound at Nick & Tony's Italian Chophouse, illustrating once again that there are chains and there are chains.
On one hand, you have the cookie-cutter eateries that erupt on the landscape almost as frequently as CVS stores. In those, the menu and the food itself, in their lowest-common-denominator sameness, won't give you a clue as to whether it's supposed to be a seafood place or an Italian place or a steak place.
|Pick up the January 2002 issue of Cleveland Magazine to read Michael von Glahn's complete review of Nick & Tony's Italian Chophouse.
And then there are the chains where some smart entrepreneurs discover they have a good thing and decide to try transplanting it in two or three other markets. They concentrate on re-creating what made the first restaurant successful, which isn't likely to happen on an industrial scale, so they keep the empire small.
So far, Chicago-based Restaurant Development Group falls into the latter category. One hopes they never outgrow that vision. RDG opened Nick & Tony's here at the end of July in the former Roxy downtown, which had been vacant for six years. This is only the second Nick & Tony's, created in hopes of duplicating the success of the original, which debuted six years ago in Chicago's Loop.
RDG spent a month gutting the 12,000-square-foot space at East Ninth and Short Vincent, then 3 1/2 months fashioning a gleaming, retro-elegant space that feels just right around a steak and a tumbler of scotch.
The dining room seats 300, the seasonal patio 250. Happy hour packs the clientele in three deep at the bar on Fridays. Breakfast and lunchtime carryout and an espresso bar are also doing "gangbusters" business, according to Nick & Tony's general manager John Volpe.
"This is my 20th restaurant," says Volpe, a 25-year restaurant veteran who adds that he never gets tired of the excitement of an opening, of wide-eyed customers gazing around a new dining room for the first time.
Rather than being monolithic, he claims, Restaurant Development Group is "still a sort of a 'mom-and-pop' corporation." As evidence, in preparation for a November opening of a new restaurant in Tempe, Ariz., RDG's two owners and its director of operations were lugging in kitchen equipment alongside the rest of the crew.
Heading up the kitchen here is executive chef Andre Miller, a North Carolina native who has been working in the Cleveland area for several years in corporate fine dining.
"We make everything in house," Volpe says. "Our freezer is basically holding desserts in it and that's about it. ... Everything else we buy fresh daily. ... All my patio furniture is back in the kitchen now we've got that much storage [available]."
Miller concurs: "You walk into my production cooler and you'll be like 'Where's the food?' because we make all our sauces fresh every day. That's key."
Miller can put up as many or as few specials as he wants. At the moment, most of his offerings are fish entrees, though he promises it will be rare for anyone to find the same fish special on his menu twice, because fish lends itself to so many different treatments. His personal fave for cooking is halibut. "It's excellent fish," he says. "It's a real soft texture, it's very mild to the taste and it accepts marinades very well."
Menu changes are slated for twice a year, summer and winter, and Miller says his input will be part of those revisions. "The corporate door is very wide open, simply because depending on where you're from people have a tendency to eat differently," he explains. "Here in Cleveland, they're more heavy eaters; in the Chicago area, a little more trendy. So you adjust according to the type of palate that you're dealing with."
Volpe notes that while Chicagoans take home bags loaded with leftovers, diners here only depart with small boxes. Miller agrees that "hearty" is a good word for Clevelanders' appetites. And hearty is the capacity you'll need to get from one end to the other of a meal at Nick & Tony's, as we found at dinner.
Calamari remains our canary in the coal mine, our initial test of a kitchen's skill. Perusing the appetizers, we bypassed the typical fried (fritti) squid to take advantage of calamari arrabbiata ($7.95), a big bowl loaded with sautéed tentacles and rings, sliced green olives and capers swimming in a lemon aglio sauce. The calamari proved as enjoyably tender as they were plentiful (this generous starter made serious inroads on our appetite for the rest of the meal). Our server knew the menu and was able to rattle off the collection of herbs and spices that put the "angry" in the arrabbiata butter.
We kept the heat under control with a Lamberti Merlot ($8 glass, $28 bottle), which started on the mild side, but opened up fairly well after a bit.
From the half-dozen salads, we chose a Caesar ($4.95), a good measure of any Italian eatery. As is becoming common, no anchovies but the greens were fresh, the dressing delicious and the big croutons seemed to have Parmesan baked into them.
One of the house specialties, twin filets scampi style ($17.95 lunch, $18.95 dinner), really won us over. The two filets, about an inch thick and done just to order, were each topped by a luscious grilled shrimp and a lemon garlic wine sauce. We could only make a dent in the accompanying mountain of slightly garlicky house mashed potatoes.
The wine list will probably have undergone a few changes by the time this prints, as several of its California and Italian labels become harder to acquire. Among other changes, a Tuscan Coltassala will depart, as will a Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon; Cake Bread sauvignon blanc will come off the glass-pour list but remain available by the bottle.
Volpe held a scotch tasting at Nick & Tony's at the end of last month. He's considering starting occasional evening wine-tasting dinners on the patio next spring.
For dessert, we had to pass on a slice of the best-selling chocolate cassata cake, which Volpe perhaps only half-jokingly, considering the appetizer and entree portions claims is "enough for a family of four." There was room to split a bowl of light and creamy smooth mango-peach gelato ($4.95).
Volpe hopes to set up a shuttle this year to get preshow diners to their entertainment at Playhouse Square Center and then bring them back to parking at National City Center (or maybe a nightcap at Nick & Tony's). He'll explore possible package deals with Playhouse Square.
Nick & Tony's isn't the only arrow in RDG's quiver, so the company isn't done here. RDG is slated to open a Nick & Tony's and a Bar Louie another concept, this one specializing in oversized sandwiches and jumbo martinis in Pittsburgh next year before returning here to start on a Cleveland-area Bar Louie.