Lasagna is the star at family friendly Nicola’s in Englewood
Friends and friends of friends rave about Nicola’s Italian Kitchen in Englewood. Some even visit the 25-year-old restaurant every week. Should I visit again, I’ll know what to order: the hot antipasto appetizer, lasagna for the main course and the homemade tiramisu.
My recent visit was hit or miss. Some of the dishes were lackluster. Others were good. And the three mentioned above were excellent.
Nicola’s has earned a 4.5-star rating on TripAdvisor from more than 200 satisfied customers. During my Friday night visit, a large wedding party occupied a good portion of the open dining room, and the restaurant suspended its call-ahead seating. Still, we took our chances and were seated within 20 minutes. Many other guests also opted to wait, and the small waiting area was occupied throughout the evening.
Nicola’s is a mom-and-pop restaurant established by the late Nicola De Fazio and his wife, Tina, both natives of Italy. Customers have enjoyed the De Fazios’ emphasis on fresh ingredients, homemade bread, never-frozen veggies and a family atmosphere and philosophy since 1990. Nicola’s freestanding building — painted in the red, green and white of Italy’s flag — is situated on McCall Road/State Road 776, eight miles from the Charlotte Sports Park and 10 miles from Port Charlotte Town Center.
Given the full house, it took a few minutes for our server to greet us. She seemed eager to have us decide on appetizers and entrees, advising us that the chicken piccata was fork-tender, and that diners can opt for a lowcarb version of manicotti that replaces pasta tubes with egg crepes. Genius.
The menu is easy to navigate, with antipasti, meat, seafood, pasta, panini and pizza categories. Symbols designate 16 house favorite dishes and wines. Nicola’s offers 10 appetizers, three soups and clams or mussels sautéed in a choice of white wine or house-made marinara sauce, the latter pointed out as a local favorite.
We started with a bottle of Hahn Winery’s 2013 cabernet sauvignon and two appetizers: the warm antipasto caldo and calamari fritti. The lightly breaded calamari arrived lukewarm and the fried banana peppers didn’t add enough sparkle to the average dish to warrant the $1.50 upcharge.
The warm antipasto, on the other hand, was very good — a nice alternative to the traditional Italian meats, olives and cheeses. The platter included excellent eggplant rollatini, filled with rich ricotta, ham, large mushroom caps stuffed with spinach, two shrimp-stuffed manicotti, three mussels, and delicious and crunchy bruschetta. I could have easily ordered just the shrimp and eggplant. They were the standouts.
The cabernet sauvignon worked well with both appetizers and my lasagna order. Our server explained that many of the wines on the exclusive, well-curated wine list — including Hahn — are family owned.
Nicola’s offers a well-rounded and diverse menu, including five veal entrées, listed among its 16 signature dishes. There are 10 pasta entrees, including lasagna.
Most dishes are accompanied by a side salad of lettuce, sliced cucumbers, onions and a couple of grape tomatoes, which is elevated by a drizzle of homemade balsamic Italian dressing.
One of my dining companions arrived early and noticed one chatty woman stopped talking when the lasagna arrived. After I took my first bit of lasagna, I understood. Nicola’s lasagna is a star of the menu, its homemade sugo meat sauce rounding out a generous portion of traditionally layered pasta, meat and ricotta topped with a thick layer of mozzarella.
Our table also ordered the nightly special, lobster ravioli served in cream sauce and sprinkled with grated cheese. The meat within was on the dry side, and the pasta pillows seemed store bought. It begged for a sauce with more imagination — perhaps something seafood based.
Nicola’s prides itself in quality fresh ingredients, but the plate-spanning chicken Parmigiana was disappointing. The breaded chicken, pounded to expert thinness, tasted like a frozen chicken patty. We were assured that the patty was fresh, and when we tried the thicker center, it was only marginally better.
Most of Nicola’s desserts are homemade, including cannoli and crème brûlée. The light and fluffy tiramisu was wonderful, but the bread pudding could have benefited from more imagination, including the basics of cinnamon and raisins. Frankly, I’d come to expect more, as many restaurants have elevated this dessert above its humble origins with chocolate, bourbon and other ingredients.
Nicola’s emphasis on family extends to its ambience and the wide-open L-shaped dining room with tables comfortably spaced. Painted wall murals display Venetian canals, mountainside villages and other Italian scenes. Windows along the front overlook a small patio defined by stone balustrades and a few glass-topped tables with wicker chairs, sculpted potted trees and the cooling breeze of whirling ceiling fans.
At full indoor occupancy, Nicola’s can be loud. Fresh flowers accent each table, set with paper placemats depicting places of note in Italy. Several wine racks showcase the select vintages available, and a display offers jars of sugo sauce, lupini beans and marinara to take home.
Nicola’s summer mode means that it is closed Sundays and Mondays, and offers weekly specials of Family style dinners (Tuesday); a taste of Germany — head chef Hans Remmers’ homeland (Wednesday); and drink and pizza deals (Thursday). ¦