This year marks the first since I’ve been around the Windsor Independent that I haven’t written a classic, Buzz Feed style list article as a year-end, best-of edition. So here are the top twelve things that are worth reading instead… I’m kidding. But I still feel compelled to write about what I consider to be the best restaurant around, at least lately. It was a New Year’s Eve dinner that finally convinced me.
Nico Ristorante has humbly occupied the corner of Elsmere and Erie for several years, and in many ways, as I’ve written in this paper before, it’s the last vestige of old Erie Street. It’s intimate, dimly-lit, relatively small, with excellent example of professional service. And above all else, chef Nick Politi has consistently put out a balanced and artful combination of nonna’s classics and modern takes.
I’ve dined at Nico about a dozen times and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same menu twice. I’ve seen feature menus for vegan dinners, a menu that focuses on specific Italian regions or provinces, as well as more conventional menus that just don’t seem to run out of new ideas. Some of my favourite dishes, though, have survived across a number of versions.
The antipasto pesce is an enormous seafood platter that’s split between two different servings. One half is grilled calamari and shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce, and the other is a cold seafood salad, anchored by shrimp and octopus and livened up with coarsely chopped carrot and celery. The offering showcases what the kitchen at Nico can do with similar ingredients prepared differently and although there’s plenty to work with here, portion-wise, you won’t be too stuffed.
Two pasta dishes have mostly hung around the menu since I’ve started going. The first is a crowd favourite, the gnocchi, which has most frequently had two different versions: four cheese, or mushroom cream. Who doesn’t love gnocchi? At the risk of mentioning Bread Meats Bread as I do in every article, when it’s done right, as it is there, and as it is here, they’re little pillows, on a cloud, and all that other superlative jazz.
But the true pasta homerun at Nico is the Bolognese. Nico is the first place that I had Bolognese and realized it isn’t spaghetti in a meat sauce. It’s a rustic, complicated dish that takes patience to make correctly, and the eponymous sauce can be elevated when it’s paired with the right noodle, usually tagliatelle.
The Bolognese here is done with wild boar, and it is simmered in a traditional mirepoix (celery, carrot, onion), along with red wine, for what must be hours and hours. The flavour is deep and rich in a way that defies the relative simplicity of its ingredients. It’s the dish I’ve had the most at Nico. I’ve shared it with people as a middle course, and I’ve had it as a main. I can’t miss it.
A good combination of my favourite aspects of the above two is another dish that has lingered for good reason: the lamb done two ways. It’s an enormous braised lamb shank served alongside grilled lamb chops, always expertly accented with some bitter greens and a side pasta. It’s ridiculously decadent, filling, and over the top. And there’s really nothing else quite like it around.
All of the wonderful fare is brought in for a soft landing by what I often describe to friends as the art of the under-serve. Which is not to be confused with poor service, or a lack of service. The under-serve is defined by knowledge, deftness, and restraint. It is knowing when I need another Campari, or when I feel uncomfortable asking for a fresh set of silverware, or when I want a quiet night with my wife. It is in this regard that Nico is the last example of old Erie Street.
The under-serve is a microcosm of what I love about Nico, because it’s a perfect example of what it doesn’t do being what makes it great. It doesn’t try too hard. It isn’t pretentious, although a food snob who is otherwise critical of Windsor, not to mention names (Mark Kurlyandchik of the Detroit Free Press), will find happiness here, too.