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Trattoria San Nicola
4 Manor Road
Paoli, Pennsylvania
(610) 695-8990

Like its older, more diminutive sibling in Berwyn, San Nicola in Paoli majors in lusty, Italian fare served up in a charmingly rustic atmosphere. The restaurant's interior boasts distressed stone/brick walls, colorful murals & original works of art, a piazza replete with bubbling fountain, a chef's room for special parties, and a comfy bar area.

The food itself is generally well prepared, attractively presented, reasonably priced, and properly proportioned. And this is no Neapolitan nirvana, anesthetizing the taste buds in a sea of innocuous red sauces; the regional Italian fare exhibits a decided touch of class.

Among the appetizers, salads hold a prominent place - and well-trimmed, pristinely fresh, peppery arugula is the greenery of choice. In one particularly pleasing starter, the arugula is tossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette and set on a bed of lean, wafer-thin slices of imported prosciutto. Wedges of sharp provolone cheese provide a feast for both the eye and the palate.

There are, of course, several variations on the arugula theme. In one incarnation, the greenery is tossed with honey grapefruit vinaigrette and embellished with sliced pears, salted ricotta cheese, pine nuts, and raisins; in another, accoutrements include crunchy croutons, walnuts, and Gorgonzola cheese, while a lively raspberry vinaigrette plays the all-important role of culinary catalyst..

If you'd prefer to go the romaine route, you may try either the traditional Caesar salad or, even more interesting in my book, the insalata San Nicola. Sections of impeccably fresh torn lettuce are tossed with a snappy Caesar dressing and topped with perfectly grilled sea scallops, several tiny shrimps, and a smattering of toasted almonds. An excellent combo..

But if you're in the market for something more substantial, you can't miss with the lightly battered eggplant rolled around provolone cheese, asparagus, basil, and capers in a garlic tomato sauce, or the braised Italian sausage severed over grilled polenta& And don't forget to check out the daily specials. Recently sampled, for instance, was a delicious mélange of sautéed crimini, oyster, and shiitake mushrooms teamed with diced tomatoes and onions.

Entrée-wise, the kitchen does an excellent job with its pasta presentations. The tortellini, for example, are stuffed with veal, served àl a Bolognese, with a benchmark tomato-meat sauce, and embellished with melted mozzarella. And the fusilli (corkscrew pasta), a nightly special, comes replete with tender morsels of diced eggplant, tomato sauce, and dabs of ricotta cheese.

Among the piscatorial offerings, the branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) baked en casserole is straightforwardly sublime. The flesh is moist and flaky, and it is simply complemented by splashes of olive oil, white wine, and lemon juice. The accompanying sautéed mixed vegetables (broccoli florets, carrots, and green beans) are perfectly textured - still firm and crunchy to the bite.

There is a great deal to recommend San Nicola... However, like many establishments, there is, inevitably, bad news as well as good. In the food department, for instance, the veal is obviously processed; that is, it has that strange consistency faintly reminiscent of a cross between Styrofoam and wet cardboard - with taste, or lack thereof, to match.

Also bear in mind that the restaurant has a great many hard surfaces (stone/brick walls, tile floors, etc.), so it can be quite noisy when filled, which seems to be most of the time. Even on a supposedly quiet Labor Day Sunday evening, the joint was jumping...

And service very much depends upon the luck of the draw. On one occasion, our waiter was right on the money. On another, however, he seemed a bit non compos mentis and felt the need to snort/sniffle (read here, "snorffle") conspicuously every time he approached our table - which, of course, added wondrously to our appetites.

During another visitation, a female bartender was in the process of building drinks when we presented ourselves at the empty bar for preprandial libations. Most competently courteous mixologists, of course, would at least have proffered some form of greeting and a "Be with you in just a moment&" She, on the other hand, assiduously avoided any acknowledgement of our presence until she had damn well completed her appointed tasks& and then did so rather grudgingly.

"Our dedicated and intelligent personnel are waiting to serve you?!?!" Perhaps, because this was Labor Day weekend, the third team was in attendance& But proprietorship should certainly be aware that this is precisely the type of service that drives patrons out the door in droves. And, once snubbed in such a manner, customers rarely return to the scene of the crime.

The reasonably priced cuisine is definitely worth a look-see. The service...? Caveat Emptor!

The Artful Diner
October 2008

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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