There are several things you should know about the owner of Nick's Pasta Place. First, her name isn't Nick. It's Gina. And she's not Italian. Gina Koutros is Greek.
It's true that she's been to Italy. She spent a week there last year. And it can't be said that she enjoyed the place. Venice she disliked particularly. Crossing the Grand Canal at night, she candidly admits, was "spooky."
Owners of Italian restaurants, of course, don't have to be Italian, but that said, Gina Koutros's credentials do seem a little slight. And even more damning, until she purchased Nick's in January 1997, what she knew about the food industry was -- well, to say "negligible" is to put it kindly. A math teacher, she bought Nick's because, as she put it, "it's more fun to run a restaurant." Many others have made a similar determination -- and ended up losing their shirts. But Gina defied the odds. By dint of her personality and an innate shrewdness, she's made a go of Nick's, transforming it into one of the nicest restaurants around. I have to hand it to her banker. Had she come to me to borrow money, I would have referred her to the nearest psychiatrist.
Gina -- I use her first name because this is what her patrons call her -- is a natural restaurateur. She doesn't only chat with her customers. Like a healer, she lays hands on them, as well. I've even seen her pull up a chair and sit at their tables. She stands by the door when people arrive, exulting at the sight of them; and when they leave, she's by the door again, this time wishing them well and urging their quick return.
Gina, you will have guessed by now, is the motherly type. My companion said she reminded him of Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama. And she loves children. (She may be Greek, but she's no Electra.) "Did you get dessert?" she asks a departing youngster. The child's mother frowns. Unlike Gina, who clearly approves of dessert, this mother clearly doesn't.
Nick's is not ornate. In one corner, a refrigerated display case purrs contentedly -- of course it would; it's full of great desserts -- and above the open kitchen, someone has painted a frieze: pots and pans and skeins of garlic, and waiters, on what look like skates, balancing plates piled high with pasta. The only other decorations are the plastic vines and plastic grapes -- Gina's idea -- strung along two walls. The suggestion is of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. But Nick's presiding spirit is more demure. I can't imagine Gina putting up with vomitoriums. And as for bacchanals....
Outside, there's an area where, if one wants to, one can dine al fresco. This, too, sports vines -- the natural kind. Looking very pastoral, it put me in mind of Silvius and Phebe, the lovers in As You Like It, romping in the Forest of Arden.
The previous owner's shade still haunts this menu in such selections as Nick's shrimp, Nick's baked lasagna and Nick's veal scaloppine. But Gina has made her presence felt as well. In addition to the holdover items, there is now Gina's pasta, Gina's roast chicken and Gina's shrimp risotto.
Because everything sounded so good, it took me an age to make up my mind. And even then, I wasn't sure I'd made the right decisions. "Are they good choices?" I asked the waiter. By way of answer, he gave me a conspiratorial wink. I do love it when waiters take you into their confidence like that. "You and I are men of the world," that wink seemed to say. "We're two of a kind."
On our first visit, we began our meal with Nick's shrimp and cozze (both $6.50). The shrimp are sauteed in butter, lemon juice and lots of garlic before being transferred to the oven where, according to the menu, they're "baked to perfection." Which is not a word of a lie. The shrimp, while crisp on the outside, still retain a little of their chewiness and are quite delicious -- so much so that on my return visit, I ordered them again.
While not as successful as the shrimp, the cozze, or mussels, were good as well. The shellfish are steamed in white wine, after which herbs and tomatoes are added to the cooking liquid, which is then reduced to make a sauce. Nick's sauce, I thought, lacked force. I'd have preferred something more emphatic.
Our main course consisted of Gina's shrimp risotto ($12.95) and Nick's veal scaloppine ($13.95). The risotto, prepared on a stovetop and then baked, was superb. Moist to the point of near-soupiness, it came with lots of shrimp and, because of the presence of olives and goat cheese, tasted pleasantly tart. The veal wasn't quite in the same league. Overcooking had made it tough. But I quite liked the cream Marsala sauce. And the artichokes were a good idea, nicely offsetting the sweetness of the wine.
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For lunch a day later, we ordered zuppa maritata ($4.50), served, we were told, at Italian weddings. Basically, this is chicken soup to which additions have been made -- penne pasta, spinach and several excellent and very light chicken dumplings. The soup itself lacked depth. A little lemon juice would have helped enormously.
For entrees, we ordered Gina's pasta and Gina's roast chicken (both $11.95). The pasta -- fettuccine in an acceptable Alfredo sauce -- came with shrimp, mushrooms and lots of green onions, and while there was much to enjoy about it, the spectacular-looking chicken breast managed to upstage it. Marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic and baked a mahogany brown, it too was a little overcooked. And a little oversalted. But the roast potatoes were perfect. Smelling of rosemary and brushed with oil, they were cut into wedges big enough to choke a cat.
When we stood up to leave, Gina was by the door, this time dispensing mints. "Are you from England?" she asked me. "I was in England last year," she went on. "For a day." Gina, clearly, is no great traveler, so I didn't bother to ask if she enjoyed the place. I have every confidence that she found London just as she found Venice: spooky.
Nick's Pasta Place, 4057 Bellaire Boulevard, 661-0025.