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Review: Nico

An average North End destination with a sweet ending
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  June 20, 2010
1.0 1.0 Stars

CHICK AS A BRICK: The brick chicken makes no fancy all-natural claims to quality — these birds didn’t play ultimate Frisbee all day. All that matters is that it tastes good.

The North End can be touristy, it can be posh, it can be authentically Italian, it can be nostalgically Italian-American, it can be snooty white-sauce Italian, and sometimes it can be charmingly (or not so charmingly) vulgar. Nico hits that last note by putting a plasma TV on the outside of the restaurant, over the sign. There are three more inside, behind the bar part of what is not a very large room.

Nico | 417 Hanover Street, Boston | 617.742.0404 | Open daily, 11:30 am–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, Vi | Beer, wine, cordials | No valet parking | access to all indoor tables up one large step
Want to get away? A function room below street level has no TVs — so far. The intended theme is disco nostalgia. Fortunately, no one has those double-knit jackets anymore, and the music isn't obtrusive until later in the evening. The food is generally overpriced and over-cheffed, but here and there a home-style dish shines through. It is possible to eat well at Nico by choosing carefully, and the staff is hospitable. So there's that.

We began with the now-obligatory plate of olives in extra-virgin olive oil, brought over from sister-restaurant Strega by chef Salvatore Firicano. Nothing wrong with that, nor with the hot, white focaccia-style bread that you dip in the oil, between the olives. (I call the bright green ones.)

My favorite selections at Nico were familiar dishes along the lines of spaghetti and meatballs ($17.95). The meatballs had the depth of the flavor of mixed meats and slow-cooking in the sauce, and the spaghetti was house-made, with chewiness you just can't get from dried pasta. I know spaghetti and meatballs is not supposed to be a real Italian dish, but you don't argue with Sicilians. If those are "our famous Mamma's Meatballs," that mamma certainly deserves her renown.

On the chef's side, an appetizer of scallops ($17.95) was entrée size, with three large sea scallops on three perfectly grilled slices of eggplant. Each had a dab of pesto and a scatter of pine nuts. There were no flavor synergies, just a bunch of good things to eat. But other appetizers were dull, pricey, or out of season — or all three in the case of an April caprese salad ($14.95). You can only get so much out of freight-car tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, but here even the cheese was a little old, and there were only shreds of fresh basil, not whole leaves, the way we make it at my house.

At least that one will get better. Even when eggplants are in every farmer's market, Nico's Sicilian-style eggplant ($13.95) will be just eggplant parm without the crumbs and most of the grease. Fried calamari ($13.95) is just like everywhere else, except it costs a few dollars more. There are some fried cherry pepper slices in there, and dabs of spicy mayonnaise, both common elsewhere.

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