When he’s not shoveling constituents’ snow-packed driveways or rescuing them from house fires, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a regular at Nico. Unfurled last February in Newark’s NJPAC complex, Nico is a go-to for Newark power lunchers and aims to develop a dinner scene on non-performance nights.
Nico, which replaced Theater Square Grill, is owned and managed by Culinaire, a Texas-based company that runs eateries in performance spaces such as Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. Nico’s modern, high-ceilinged space is comfortable and attractive, if lacking the architectural excitement of the arts center as a whole.
The name Nico refers to a Nutley six-year-old named Nicholas, son of the restaurant’s executive chef, Ryan DePersio. The charismatic 34-year-old chef is an Essex County star known for Fascino in Montclair and Bar Cara in Bloomfield. In a phone interview after my visits, DePersio described Nico’s menu, which he designed, as “Italian tapas.” There are 20 “bites” (appetizers, pastas, pizzas) and 10 “dishes” (smallish entrées, with tabs to match). DePersio called his style “Italian without borders,” because his dishes incorporate global touches like cumin, harissa, saffron and yuzu.
Nothing I ate in two extensive meals at Nico quite lived up to the sloganeering, but a number of dishes were pleasing. From Fascino’s menu come remarkably supple ricotta gnocchi—“a secret recipe,” said DePersio—served with a delicious sausage ragù. The tart, meaty pomegranate-chili wings hail from Bar Cara. No DePersio restaurant would be complete without the wildly popular mascarpone polenta fries with Gorgonzola dipping sauce, first served at Fascino—and here they are, as crunchy-creamy as ever.
A few other “bites” are fun to eat. Lamb meatballs get a Levantine touch with cumin and crumbled feta alongside. (Nico’s lamb burger sells well at lunch.) Semolina-crusted zucchini chips, another Bar Cara transplant, are on the thick and oily side, but enlivened by their harissa aioli spiced with Moroccan chili paste. Cornmeal-crusted calamari were agreeably crunchy outside, tender inside. But the tomato compote dipping sauce tasted like plain marinara better suited to pizza.
In fact, this same sauce, made from canned tomatoes from Naples, is used on Nico’s small pizzas. DePersio described the style as “a contemporary cross between puffy-crusted Neapolitan pizza and artisanal thin-crusted pies.” On an early visit, the crusts on the pizzas I sampled were as thin and sere as matzoh; at the next dinner, they were just right. “Every pizza oven is different,” DePersio said, “and we’ve ironed out the kinks.” Indeed, the roasted-sausage pizza I had on that return visit was excellent. The quattro formaggi pie was nicely laden with ricotta, fontina, Parmigiano-Reggiano and house-made mozzarella, but I could barely taste the black truffle or luxurious lardo (cured pork fat) the menu promised.
As for pastas and risottos, an unusual—but quite tasty—concoction called chicken cacciatore risotto had just one piece of chicken, an unwieldy braised drumstick, bone and all. Lobster mac and cheese, made with spiral-rotini pasta, was soupy and bland on one visit, dry and bland on another, with scant lobster meat. Stick with the gnocchi or, another good bet, the tagliatelle with braised short ribs.
Nico’s “dishes” were uneven as well. A trio of lump crab cakes were simply average. Scottish salmon was dry, its delicate flavor overpowered by a briny olive crust. The shrimp in shrimp scampi with fra diavolo sauce, another odd combination, were fresher than the mussels in the Prince Edward Island mussel appetizer. But the scampi bore zero trace of garlic or heat in the fra diavolo sauce. More appealing was excellent Black Angus beef tenderloin cooked audaciously rare, as ordered. Sadly, its Yukon rosti potatoes—crushed and baked with crème fraîche—were cafeteria-dull.
For dessert, I’ve seen servings of foie gras bigger than pastry chef Binicio Salas’s nubbin-sized chocolate cake. It was plated with a small “fudge pot” of what tasted like good chocolate pudding, topped with a dollop of pistachio mousse so fine it deserves star billing on its own. The Sicilian spumoni sundae proved merely an assortment of wan house-made ice creams. Rum-raisin bread pudding and Italian-style ricotta cheesecake were better.
DePersio is in the building only about once a week. The kitchen is usually manned by chef de cuisine Adam Rose, who has cooked at various Jersey restaurants, including Hoboken’s 3-Forty Grill and Bin 14. DePersio and Rose have proven their mettle elsewhere, but as the curtain rises on a new NJPAC season, Nico still needs to polish its act.