Take a walk along the narrow brick streets of Little Italy on a Saturday night, and you won't get far before being captivated by the aromas of garlic, olive oil, and freshly baked bread. This is, after all, a neighborhood where you can't swing a pizza box without hitting an Italian restaurant. As you would expect, many of those restaurants are good. Some of them are very good. But according to all the little birds on Mayfield Road, Nido Italia, Angelo Sidari's "Italian nest," is one of the best.
Sidari opened Nido about seven years ago as a private club, but changed it to a public dining spot in 1996. He has relied on chefs Luigi Guerra and Robert Fenske ("Fenskerelli," Sidari jokes), and authentic Italian products, to create Nido's simple menu of traditional Italian foods.
Products like buffalo mozzarella, dried pastas, canned tomatoes, and some of the dessert items are imported directly from Italy, Sidari says. Others, like homemade cavatelli, gnocchi, and ravioli, are made by Sidari's Italian Foods on Lakeside Avenue in Cleveland.
Despite the almost-stereotypical Italian restaurant menu, there's not a red-and-white-checked tablecloth in sight when you step through Nido's front door. Instead, tables draped in white and aquamarine linens sparkle with crystal and candlelight. The two dimly lit dining rooms--also done in a cool shade of bluish-green and brightened by white latticework room dividers, mirrors, and tall arrangements of dried flowers--conjure up images of a garden at twilight. Background tracks are provided by such tuneful sons of Italy as Louis Prima and Frank Sinatra, and live entertainers--from '40s-style swing bands to Sinatra impersonators-- are on the schedule every Friday evening.
Although there is nothing trendy about Nido's food, the dishes are exceptionally well-prepared and flavorful, portions are generous, and prices are ridiculously low.
Appetizers include staples like fried mozzarella, shrimp cocktails, and steamed mussels. A mammoth platter of breaded and deep-fried fresh calamari contained both rings (body) and tentacles, and was more than enough for two enthusiastic eaters. The light, crisp breading was completely nongreasy, and the meat inside it was sweet and nutty. The squid obviously had been attentively cooked at a very high temperature for a very short time, so it was perfectly tender and not the least bit chewy. The mild flavor of the calamari was nicely set off by juicy lemon wedges and a smooth, sweetish housemade marinara sauce for dipping.
An appetizer of marinated and grilled portobello mushrooms on a bed of leafy greens was likewise big enough for sharing. The large 'shroom caps were succulent, with a bit of zip from the garlic-and-herb-spiked marinade and a smoky, grilled undertone. Topped with strips of roasted red pepper, the dish was light but full-flavored.
Main courses include nine pastas, three seafood dishes, four veal dishes, and a couple of beef, chicken, and lamb preparations. Over the course of several visits, we've sampled eight different entrees without a single major disappointment.
Among our favorites was a washbasin-sized bowl of perfectly al dente imported angel hair pasta tossed with plenty of diced kalamata olives, sauteed fresh spinach, and big pieces of plump sun-dried tomatoes, and anointed with an assertive aglio e olio.
We also enjoyed a big serving of firm, tender cavatelli in the smooth marinara and an order of jumbo cheese ravioli topped with a thick, housemade meat sauce. I swear I could eat cardboard if it came topped with that savory meat sauce, made like Nonna used to make it: with pork neckbones, meatballs, and spicy Italian sausage.
A shrimp-and-pasta dish featured five juicy, perfectly sauteed jumbo shrimp over firm imported linguine. The dish was tossed in a satiny heavy-cream sauce and colorfully accented with pieces of red tomatoes and fresh green basil. As we expected, the dish was very rich, and a little went a long way. The up side was the delicious leftovers we gobbled down for lunch the following day.
We worked our way through three of the four veal dishes on the menu, each built upon the same base of large, thinly pounded, sauteed veal filets. The difference between the dishes was in their savory sauces. Veal Marsala was napped in a robust mushroom-and-wine sauce. Veal Scallopini was topped with sauteed mushrooms, green peppers, and onions in a creamy sherry sauce. And Medallions of Veal came with a light sauce of lemon juice, white wine, butter, and parsley. In each dish, the veal was sweet and fork-tender, and the various full-bodied sauces were generously but not overwhelmingly applied. While each was distinctive and delicious, our favorite was the deeply seasoned Veal Marsala.
Our only disappointment was a small side dish of "risotto" that reminded us more of high-school cafeteria Spanish rice than of the creamy, Parmesan-cheese flavored dish unique to Italian cuisine. Still, even the rice wasn't entirely without charm, having been molded into little hearts (for the Valentine holiday) and set upon a pool of that irresistible marinara.
We couldn't resist seeing what Nido could do with the ubiquitous Chicken Parmesan. What it does, we found, isn't unusual, but is done unusually well. A whole split chicken breast had been dipped in an egg-herb-and- bread-crumb batter, pan-fried until it was crisp on the outside but juicy within, and topped with lots of creamy mozzarella cheese and bits of parsley. The relatively thick yet tender piece of poultry, with its crunchy crust, was the best version of this dish we have come across. It was accompanied by a hearty serving of firm linguine in marinara.
Nido's wine list has 29 red, white, "blush," and sparkling Italian wines, including a number of bottles priced at less than $30. We chose glasses of a pleasant house Merlot and a satisfactory house Chianti ($4 each). To paraphrase the comedian Madeline Kahn, both wines were "amusing, but not too hilarious."
Meals come with a choice of either a mixed-greens salad, with a tongue-tingling Italian dressing of balsamic vinegar, red-wine vinegar, garlic, and olive oil; or a romaine lettuce salad topped with a thick, cheesy Caesar-style dressing and buttery croutons. Both large salads were flawlessly fresh and crisp.
With them, we enjoyed a breadbasket full of Orlando Bakery's warm, crisp-crusted ciabatta rolls. The bread was served with a good olive oil for dipping, although we preferred spreading it with the garlic-parsley butter that was also on the table.
Desserts include tartuffo, an ice-cream truffle of Italian chocolate-flavored ice cream rolled in cocoa powder; a rich imported tiramisu; a small slice of locally made chocolate-raspberry mousse; and a cannoli.
Although the first three items were pleasant, if not especially memorable, the cannoli was king. While the golden shell was less crisp than it might have been, the filling of whipped ricotta cheese was fantastic: Not so sweet that the sharp undertones of the cheese were obliterated, but rich, smooth, and spiked with a judicious measure of chocolate chips, it was a scrumptious blend of sweet-and-creamy flavors and smooth-and-crunchy textures. Sidari says both the filling and the shells are imported, and the shells are stuffed at the time an order is placed.
Service at Nido is typically friendly and prompt, and may be punctuated by tableside visits from Sidari himself, shaking hands, patting shoulders, and making sure that everyone is enjoying his or her food.
We only wish the place were busier: In two Saturday evening visits and one weekday lunch trip, we've never found it anywhere near capacity. And that's a shame, because, even in a neighborhood where the streets are lined with trattorias and the air shimmers with the scent of garlic, Nido Italia is a standout.
Nido Italia. 12020 Mayfield Road. 216-421-0221. Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday, except for private parties.
Calamari (appetizer) $6.50
Grilled Portobello Mushrooms $7.95
Angel Hair Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes $9.95
Jumbo Shrimp and Linguine $10.95
Jumbo Cheese Ravioli with Meat Sauce $8.95
Medallions of Veal $13.95
Veal Scallopini $14.95
Veal Marsala $13.95
Chicken Parmesan $12.95
Chocolate-Raspberry Mousse $4.00