For seven years, Nicolino Ristorante Italiano in Issaquah's Gilman Village has romanced its faithful customerswith generous amounts of olive oil, butter, and garlic. The first chef and owner, Nicolino Petruzelli, developed original recipes based on his mother's Southern Italian cooking. Nicolino Ristorante Italiano 317 NW Gilman Blvd, Issaquah,
checks; major credit cards
dinner every day, lunch Mon-Sat Nicolino moved on to Northern California after North Bend became too crowded. More recently his partner Tim Wilson sold the restaurant to a couple who started out as frequent patrons. Jessica Robertiello and Derek Gaston Schaubroeck joined Nicolino as waitstaff three years ago, then took over the restaurant last May. Only the ownership is new; the decor, menu, and kitchen staff trained by Nicolino remain untouched. "It's been a smooth transition. We didn't want to ruin it for the regulars," explains Schaubroeck. "It's their restaurant." It doesn't take long to become a regular at Nicolino. Robertiello or Schaubroeck greets every party, and the servers possess elephant memories. Lively Italian music punctuates the bistro atmosphere. A colorful mural of Italian storefronts plus stars painted on a dusky blue ceiling lend magic to the small dining room. Couples can linger over a romantic meal and have money left over to pay the sitter. A wall of glass doors opens onto a red-bricked patio, the restaurant's best fair weather feature. Leafy trees, a latticed fence with tall shrubs, and pots overflowing with petunias and geraniums inspire guests to wait up to 30 minutes to dine al fresco. A small water fountain with twin cherubs serves as the centerpiece, though it can't quite drown out the traffic on Gilman Boulevard. My sole quibble is with the white plastic patio furniture. At dinnertime fresh bread and herb-infused olive oil are served up immediately, before you have time to glance at your menu. Rosemary, oregano, garlic, and chili flakes jazz up the oil, and the same oil mixture is used in bread baked on the premises. We drink the reliable house Chianti. The melanzane alla barese ($6.50), an appetizer, is an absolute must try. I'm not a fan of eggplant, but I could have wolfed down the entire platter for dinner. The perfectly grilled slices stay firm and taste rich. Smoked mozzarella and Parmesan top the eggplant, which is surrounded by a moat of tangy marinara sauce. The pollo alla amarene ($12.95) is one of Nicolino's signature dishes. Wild Italian cherries add an innovative touch to the generous portion of cream and caramelized onion sauce; altogether, however, the combination is tooth-achingly sweet. The accompanying fettuccine was a tad chewy for my taste, but the chicken breast was gratifyingly velvety. I longed for a recent weeknight special—a tender pork chop covered with roasted garlic. Another appetizer, pepperoni alla siciliana ($6.25), drowned fried bell peppers, olives, and capers in an overwhelming bath of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Also disappointing was the minestrone soup ($2.95): bland, with mushy vegetables. If something's not right, speak up. On one visit, the bread didn't live up to its usual freshness; we immediately got a basket of fresh bread still warm from the oven. Vegetarian options include the cappellini veloci ($8.95), angel hair pasta mixed with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, olives, basil, and the largest capers I have ever seen. These grape-sized capers come from Italy and they overpower the other ingredients. After a few bites my dinner companion started piling them on the side of his plate. The spaghetti Siracusa ($11.45), ordered without sausage, makes for a better vegetarian meal (in spite of a policy discouraging substitutions, this one's OK). The hearty pepper, mushroom, and eggplant chunks are sure to appreciated by everyone. From the capers to the portions, everything is big at Nicolino. Most diners leave with a Styrofoam container. If a dish comes with cheese, such as the pollo alla Parmigiana, expect a melting slab oozing on top of it all. If there's butter in the sauce, such as in the Penne Sovietche, count on seeing it squeeze out when you spear a pasta tube with your fork. If you save room for dessert, prepare for a hefty slice of tiramisu crowned with thick whipped cream. Another large dessert, the amarena corona ($4) requires teamwork: one person steadying the gigantic hunk of vanilla ice cream drizzled with cherries while the other carves off a spoonful.