Winter may bring some dreary weather, but it also brings holiday dinners and parties to lift spirits. We felt an escape was needed and Nicola’s Ristorante made a splendid destination. The new Via Vita on Fountain Square, run by Nicola Pietoso’s son Cristian, may get all the press with its prime location and night club atmosphere, but the original venue in its restored historic streetcar barn has preserved the benchmark for the best and most authentic Italian fare in the city.
After some hors d’oeuves and sparkling Gloria Ferrer Brut on the second floor balcony, our capacity crowd filled the main dining room and adjacent wine cellar room to sample a first course of braised pork belly with apple and endive. Combinations of sweet fruit, tart vinegar, a crunchy coating, and juicy center on the pork made for an enjoyable medley with some Merryvale Chardonnay. The pasta course was a fantastic duet of gnocchi with cheese fondue and truffle alongside house-made maccheroni with a duck ragout. The gnocchi was almost foamy in its lightness while the other chewy pasta had a meaty, marrow quality that went well with the previous Chardonnay as well as a Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir that was now served. Sourced from the respected Dutton Ranch, this elixir was grounded in earthiness with a hint of forward fruit and balanced red cherry flavors that made for a classic Russian River rendition.
The fish course of skate wing appeared esoteric, but lemon-caper sauce and Brussels sprouts provided classic flavor profiles coupled with a beautiful Puligny-Montrachet from Oliver LeFlaive. This bright young wine featured overtones of lemon on the nose and palate. The meat course was a tour de force that exceeded even the exceptional pasta duet. Rack of lamb with Sardinian fregola, a pearl pasta, accompanied sunchoke purée and pickled cipollini onions. One wine could not be enough for this triumph, so we had two outstanding contributors from Napa Valley and Bordeaux. Beringer Private Reserve was met with Château Clerc-Milon for a battle where the palate always won no matter what we savored.
Our dessert of mascarpone cream and Belgian dark chocolate mousse served in martini glasses gave a delightful coda to a fete that carried us away from the familiar routine. We gave thanks to Nicola Pietoso and his staff for an evening of international cuisine with Italian flair to raise the holiday spirit.
J.T. Mayer, Chargé de Presse Provincial Midwest