Meet Nicole DeCarlo and Matthew Tirri, North Jersey’s latest restaurant power couple.
They first met at Indian Hills High School in Oakland but didn’t start dating until college. She’s a bank director in Weehawken and the daughter of the owners of Boxcar Bagel & Deli in Bogota, who jumped when she heard about a restaurant opportunity a few doors down. He’s the former executive chef of the now-shuttered Ruga in Oakland and the nephew of the owners of the Market Basket in Franklin Lakes.
They’re getting married next month. Last October, they opened Nicole’s, a low-key Italian-focused BYO off River Road in Bogota in the site of the former Buon Amici. It offers a menu of upscale yet familiar dishes, a classy atmosphere, relatively moderate pricing and much more room to breathe than many neighborhood restaurants of the same scope.
Nicole’s is in a rather unlikely spot — a tiny strip mall near the railroad tracks, with the deli and a Chinese eatery as its only neighbors. Its big windows offer a view of a fire station. Inside, the space has been renovated into a neutral, comfortable spot that seems tailor-made for business presentations: free wireless Internet, a 100-inch high-definition screen, full handicapped accessibility and a spacious room that can easily be divided.
There’s also a little 10-seat café area in the front of the restaurant for anyone wanting to come in for just coffee or dessert.
Service is welcoming and polite; on the one slow night we were alone in the restaurant for most of the dinner, our waiter was bend-over-backward ready to please and warm enough to make up for the absence of other customers.
Yet what we were most curious about was the food. Tirri spent eight years at Ruga, eventually working his way up to executive chef. But the food at the once four-star restaurant declined toward its end, and its dishes suffered from so many glaring execution problems that I dropped the restaurants rating to 1½ stars in 2007, a few months after Tirri took charge of the kitchen and a year before it closed.
Happily, Nicole’s is an improvement. We did run into a few problematic dishes – the popular rice ball appetizer ($6) bore a hard crust and was stuffed with rubbery pieces of prosciutto; the crab cake, though generous, was oversalted and too loosely packed to really be called a cake ($10). The filling of our cannoli ($6) didn’t taste fresh. But the menu has enough good and, in some cases, downright delicious dishes that it’s worth a visit for anyone in the immediate area.
Start with the onion tart, inspired by a Ruga signature dish, its rich Romano cheese sauce cut with a balsamic reduction ($9). Another rich success was the pappardalle in a lovely cream sauce with porcini and wild mushrooms ($15). A moist, thick pork chop arrabiata bore a subtle spiciness ($18); a tilapia special ($21) came with none of the promised black bean sauce, but that was made up for by a crisp sear on the fish and a sweet corn salsa.
The pizza appetizer bears a very thin crust and a modest amount of sauce ($9); rigatoni Bolognese was less like a traditional Bolognese but just as satisfying – its plum tomato sauce was loaded with flavorful ground beef, veal and pork, with a few peas topped with an herbed ricotta cheese mixture ($14). The shrimp risotto has become one of Tirri’s signatures – though on the salty side, it was light and creamy, with perfectly cooked shrimp, calamari and mussels ($18). (Note: We found the portion sizes more than enough, but if you’re expecting the sort of restaurant that serves everyone enough food for three people, this is not your place.)
The restaurant makes most of its desserts (all $6), and your best choices are the tiramisù, studded with little chocolate chips, and the lemony ricotta cheesecake, which was just out of the oven when we visited. Coffee is served with biscotti, bread with herb-flecked butter, and Tirri himself brought us complimentary |bruschetta before one dinner.
Though it wasn’t offered to us during our visits, Nicole’s now has a wine list from a local liquor store, which will deliver to your table. And posted prominently in the restaurant is a quote about feeling sorry for people who don’t drink: “When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they’re going to feel all day.” Tirri and DeCarlo chose the plaque because of its picture of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – the latter bears a sharp resemblance to DeCarlo’s late grandfather. It’s another way to keep the restaurant all in the family.
10C River Road, Bogota
Food: Italian-American, with other influences, upscale yet familiar dishes.
Ambience: Sedate dining room in a small strip mall off industrial River Road.
Service: Earnest and courteous.
Value: OK for the prices. Appetizers $5 to $10, entrées $14 to $24.
Would be good for: Lunch or dinner for anyone in the area, business presentation.
Less appropriate for: Destination dinner.
Recommended dishes: Onion tart, porcini pappardalle, pork chop arrabiata, tiramisù, ricotta cheesecake.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Liquor, wine: BYO. Delivery available from nearby liquor store.
Noise level: Generally tranquil – may be louder when restaurant is full.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V.
Reservations: Recommended for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Accommodations for children: Menu, highchairs.
Early-bird specials or deals: $15.95 prix fixe dinner available between 4 and 6 p.m. includes house salad, choice of selected appetizers and entrées, and cheesecake or tiramisù.
Reviewed: May 6, 2011.
About the ratings
In determining ratings, each restaurant has been compared with others of the same type and level of ambition. Reviewers make at least two anonymous visits to a restaurant, and the newspaper always pays the tab.