Restaurant Review: Nicola Restaurant and Bar

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Lacinato e Pecorino (kale Caesar salad)

Nicola Restaurant and Bar conjures the spirit of Siena in Upper Arlington

Chef Nicola "Nido" Bedalli of Upper Arlington's Nicola Restaurant and Bar grew up making pasta in Tuscany. Good thing for us. And Bedalli not only knows pasta, he turns out tasty Italian foods of many kinds at his welcoming Reed Road restaurant.

The warmth of the place begins with the chef himself and the front-of-house manager, his wife Speranza. Chef Bedalli, a bit grizzled looking in that handsome Italian way, is as friendly as can be when making appearances in the dining room. You will normally be greeted, though, by the utterly charming Speranza, who sincerely wants you and your guests to have an enjoyable time. She will leave you alone with your date, or if you like, attend to your every request. The servers here mostly follow her lead.

Pastas at Nicola are handmade and egg-based, from spaghetti to lasagna to ravioli. Fresh egg pasta cooks up firmer than fresh water-based pasta. While not as firm as dried varieties, Bedalli's noodles retain plenty of bite.

In the Tuscan manner, most of the pasta dishes are sauced simply and relatively sparingly. Take the Tagliatelle con Tartufo ($18), which is dressed in nothing more than good olive oil, Parmigiana-Reggiano and flecks of earthy black truffle. I could eat this tasty plate of pasta once a week and never tire of it.

Likewise, the Spaghetti al Pomodoro ($16) is nothing but lovely noodles touched with tomato, basil and a hint of garlic.

To my taste, the best pasta dish on the menu is the pappardelle ($20) served Siena-style (a nod to the Tuscan city where our chef grew up). The wide, flat noodles are offered in a deep ragu of duck that's been braised with garlic, onion and tomato until it falls into shreds. With some shavings of good Parmesan cheese and a glass of Chianti, you may fall in love.

Nicola also serves an excellent spaghetti with fresh clams ($18), prepared with garlic, white wine and herbs-the chef adds chunks of artichoke to the dish, which is unneeded but acceptable.

Strangely, the only pasta disappointment is Ravioli con Nido ($20). The idea is wonderful-handmade ravioli filled with lemon zest-flavored ricotta cheese, pepper and a raw egg. It's served in a fragrant sauce of butter and fresh sage. The idea is that the short cooking time for the fresh pasta leaves the yolkrunny, enriching both the cheese and noodle. Sounds great in practice, but both times I ordered the dish the pasta was way too thick, requiring a cooking time that hardened the egg and resulted in rubbery pasta. With a little work, this dish could be one of the best things on the menu.

Beyond pasta, there is much to recommend. Antipasti include beef Carpaccio ($10), the raw beef still juicy, topped with very lemony arugula and dark green caper berries. Not Tuscan but quite delicious is Polpo Agrumato ($12), soft-braised little chunks of octopus served with white beans, red onion and a lemony dressing.

If you sit in the main dining room in season, you will note the garden outside the windows, chock full of herbs, tomatoes and other produce. I noticed the profusion of Tuscan black kale called cavolo nero and immediately ordered the Lacinato e Pecorino ($8), or black kale Caesar salad. You should too-the crisp leaves are lightly dressed and enhanced with salty pecorino cheese and toasted breadcrumbs. It may be the best, healthful salad I've ever eaten. The roasted beet salad ($8) with mixed greens and goat cheese is another nice option.

The Carne e Pesce side of the menu is worth a tour as well. The simple but elegant dish Luccio al Cartoccio ($26) is listed on the menu as freshwater pike (in truth, it's walleye, but they are closely related) baked in foil with tomatoes, olives and herbs. Steaming with aromatics and veggies is the perfect treatment for this mild white fish.

Both chicken and veal scaloppini ($20 or $26) are the standard versions, done either picatta-style with lemon butter or in a sweet Marsala wine sauce. The best among the meat and fish courses is not Tuscan at all, but cioppino, described here as Livorno fisherman-style seafood stew ($33). The hearty bowl of cioppino is thick with tomato and filled to the brim with shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels and chunks of white fish-each piece of seafood seemingly added to the stew at just the right time so that nothing is overcooked.

Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt, because of course, bread is just a vehicle to absorb and enjoy all the bold flavors of the food. But in the old country the bread is at least substantial, if lacking salt. The bread here could use an upgrade.

The dessert menu is predictable: gelato, tiramisu and cannoli. But all are done well. A more interesting option is the Crostata al Limoncello ($7) flavored with the chef's house-made lemon liqueur. The lemon cake was a tiny bit dry and not quite rescued by the lemon custard, but this is a good dessert.

Naturally, the wine list here is heavily Italian, and like the food, most of it is reasonably priced. It's nice to see some unusual (for the U.S.) Tuscan wines like a crisp Vernaccia on the list.

On Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, the place becomes a little market called Nicola Mercato with fresh pasta and all manner of Italian bottled and canned goods for sale. The restaurant will happily do parties, private cooking classes, wine dinners; you name it, they'll accommodate. And in nice weather, the little patio in front is a fine place to dine.

Chef Nicola and Speranza have created a place where simple Italian cooking with fresh ingredients is done well. Like the Tuscan countryside, it's a beautiful thing.

Nicola Restaurant ?and Bar

4740 Reed Rd., Upper Arlington, 614-459-7000,

Hours: 5–9 p.m. Mon–Thu, 5–10 p.m. Fri–Sat; bar and patio open at 4:30 p.m. for happy hour Mon–Sat

Price Range: Antipasta/soups/salads $6–$12; entrees $16–$33

Reservations: Recommended; can be made online or by phone.

In Short: Handmade pastas and more at this neighborhood Italian restaurant, where chef Nicola Bedalli brings us the bright flavors of his native Tuscany.

3 out of 4 stars (Excellent)