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Busting Chops

Nick & Tony's has a great look, but its menu doesn't hold up.

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The retro-hip look of Nick & Tony's goes a long way. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The retro-hip look of Nick & Tony's goes a long way.
Say, who's that skinny fellow standing at the end of the bar? The guy with the tipped fedora, the loosened tie, and the jacket slung over one shoulder with a certain suave panache. Could it possibly be . . .?

No, it couldn't . . . and yet, if the Chairman of the Board were suddenly to return to earth, it's easy to imagine that Nick & Tony's Italian Chophouse is the type of place he would choose to play his encore.

Part of a rapidly growing Chicago-based chain, Nick & Tony's has been open since July, and it's a real looker. Even during a sunlit afternoon, the restaurant on the ground level of the National City Center building is dimly lit and evocative, oozing the languid charm of a 1950s Newark supper club. Although the square footage is considerable, the place achieves a sense of warmth and intimacy, thanks to its low ceilings, dark woodwork, and a line of oversized booths outfitted in chocolate-colored leather. Retro ceiling lamps cast a golden glow; Sinatra, Louis Prima, Rosemary Clooney, and the like provide the soundtrack. Crisp white tablecloths and gleaming wooden floors distinguish the main dining room, while groupings of deep, velvety club chairs demarcate the border between the dining room and the spacious bar, with its attention-grabbing mosaic tile floor. If the Rat Pack were still at large, its members would be whooping it up behind curtained French doors, in one of Nick & Tony's private dining rooms. On the other hand, anonymous white-collar working stiffs with tight schedules can be seen gulping their morning lattes or scarfing down weekday lunches (soups, salads, sandwiches, and the like) at tables near the restaurant's coffee bar and gourmet carryout counter. And should all these settings -- the dining room, the bar, the private rooms, and the deli counter -- be not quite enough to entirely seduce you, a spacious alfresco dining plaza awaits the eventual return of summer.

But while Nick & Tony's is as good-looking as almost any downtown dining room, the food and service sometimes seem to exist in a separate realm -- a world where orders may be botched, details are overlooked, and the help proves merrily inefficient.

Take our steaks. Please. As a grumpy companion was eager to point out, an "Italian chophouse" is a purely artificial concept; still, the name does imply that steaks and chops are among the kitchen's focal points. Yet of all the dishes we sampled, the two most disappointing offerings turned out to be steaks: the Twin Filets Scampi-Style (identified on the menu as a house specialty) and a 12-ounce New York Strip Steak Vesuvio. Certainly, much of our frustration can be chalked up to one major misstep: Both steaks arrived done to a dry and mealy medium, rather than the medium-rare that had been ordered. But it didn't help that the strip steak (served in a savory but overly abundant "broth" of tomato, wine, and garlic and smothered beneath peas and cubes of assorted roasted vegetables) had more than its share of fat and gristle. As for the filet and scampi dish, the two medium-sized grilled shrimp that topped the petite beef medallions had decent flavor, but a rubbery texture that marked them as frozen, and an accompanying bouquet of broccoli was properly cooked but entirely unseasoned.

A half-dozen of the same lackluster frozen shrimp -- which the menu laughably alluded to as "jumbo" -- formed the centerpiece for an entrée of Shrimp Bianco. Here, the crustaceans profited from a creamy, crabmeat-studded white sauce, but, in terms of flavor and interest, they wound up playing second fiddle to the side dish of angel-hair pasta, tossed with a rich and rousing pomodoro (tomato) sauce.

In fact, Nick & Tony's southern-Italian-style pasta dishes proved to be among the menu's most satisfying and least expensive alternatives. The options cover lots of ground, from simple spaghetti and meatballs to lasagna Bolognese, ziti with pesto, and penne tossed with roasted artichoke hearts, peas, fresh mozzarella, and marinara. Spinach-stuffed ravioli were light and savory. Fat cushions of portobello-stuffed tortelloni were delicious, although the satiny blue-cheese cream sauce, studded with crumbled bacon, tender leaf spinach, and roasted tomato, was notably salty.

For starters, a generous serving of warm, cheesy Artichoke and Spinach Formaggio Dip, surrounded with crisp-yet-chewy wedges of freshly baked Parmesan-and-herb dappled flatbread, was a knockout, and the restaurant's version of minestrone, served with a big, buttery Parmesan-coated crouton, was thick, full of long-simmered flavor, and nicely balanced. We enjoyed three excellent ravioli and two savory slices of breaded and fried mozzarella on a nontraditional Antipasto Platter, but were less impressed with the platter's breaded and fried calamari, which was reasonably tender but underseasoned. However, à la carte salads proved to be fresh and crisp. The specialty Chopped Salad, mostly composed of iceberg lettuce, was enlivened by bits of crumbled bacon, blue cheese, scallion, tomato, and cucumber; the Italian Salad was built upon the same crunchy lettuce, now sassed with sliced green olives, red onion, and peas, in a light, well-seasoned red-wine vinaigrette.

Although service always seemed well intentioned, Nick & Tony's dining room staffers often appeared awkward and poorly trained. At lunch, for instance, a server took our appetizer order, but then forgot to come back and inquire about entrées. At dinner, we asked for a clean bread plate and were instead given a breadbasket. Table trash -- things like plastic cups from salad dressings and a swizzle stick from a martini (which, incidentally, showed up with an olive, rather than the twist that was ordered) -- was left to accumulate around us. And a Saturday-night server made great show of removing our white-wine glasses after we ordered a bottle of Chianti, only to bring back the same glasses when he fetched the wine! When we pleasantly insisted on red-wine glasses, he cheerfully complied. "You're in luck!" he chirped, as he set them on the table a few minutes later. "These were the last three we had left!"

Such slippages stand out in stark contrast to the upscale setting. Additional letdowns included otherwise-pleasant ciabatta bread served icy cold, half-and-half tossed onto the table in little plastic tubs, and the abrupt cessation of the background music at about the same time most of our fellow Saturday-night diners headed out for their seats in nearby theaters.

And we are still scratching our heads over a standard-issue, four-layer chocolate cake that the restaurant brazenly labels Chocolate Cassata Cake. Despite the fancy name, the towering treat is a far cry from true cassata cake, a dessert of liqueur-soaked sponge cake filled with ricotta, candied fruit, and shaved chocolate. Admittedly, the authentic item is a rarity around these parts, but if chocolate layer cake is what you're serving, stow the pretense and call it what it is.

Despite its shortcomings, Nick & Tony's will probably continue to get by on its good looks, augmented by its attractive warm-weather patio and its convenience for lunch-hour and pre-theater dining. But a stand-alone downtown destination it is not. It's like Frankie might have said: "A pretty face will get 'em in the door, kiddo. But it takes more than that to keep 'em coming back."

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