Nicola’s In the Market
This will be the last article of my ongoing series, “An Ideal Spaghetti Sauce,” in honor of my mother, Nettie Marino. My sisters and I decided to end our search for the perfect pasta sauce with Nicola’s Italian Wine and Faire, located on the outskirts of the Old Market at the corner of 13th & Jackson.
In these articles based upon all things Italian, the Marino sisters’ quest for the ideal spaghetti sauce began with the biased opinion our mother’s Red Lead carried the crown. By dining in some of the best Italian restaurants in Omaha, we could compare each establishment’s culinary invention of tomatoes and herbs with our mother’s tomatoes and herbs. It’s a concept similar to the Bobby Flay “Throw Down” series featured on Food Network, but without the surprise challenge to restaurant owners by a celebrity chef!
Although we ain’t Bobby Flay or famous chefs, the Marino surname has some clout to Italian cuisine lovers in Omaha. Our ancestors immigrated here at the turn of the twentieth century and later established businesses of their own. Two cousins come to mind that are bygone Omaha icons: The Marino Deli and A. Marino Grocery.
We first discovered Nicola’s In the Market through a friend back in 2009. Our mother died that year and we needed some “nice Italian food” and a night out. Nicola’s version of “Italian Wedding Soup” brought back childhood memories and stirred our hearts. We decided it would be the perfect place to return to commemorate her birthday! Not only does this create a new tradition for us to salute a generation gone by, but a commitment as sisters to dine together at least once a year. So with this opportunity to take on two birds with one stone, off we went on Mom’s birthday to dine together, and compare her homemade Sicilian sauce to Nicola’s professionally prepared recipe.
We reserved our dinner date the Sunday before Halloween. A polite young man greeted us at the door and led us to our table. Our five o’clock reservation coincided with the opening dinner hour. This gave us one of the best tables in the house since we were the first diners to walk in the door. By the time we decided on an appetizer, most of the tables inside this quaint building nestled in the heart of the Old Market were occupied.
As we relaxed and sipped our Moscato d’Asti’s, I noticed the hostess seating customers outside on the patio. Inside the restaurant seated next to us, I spotted what I assumed a “regular”; she was all cozy in her corner enjoying a lasagna dish, while reading a well-worn paperback. Our own food soon arrived as our first course, an antipasto. It consisted of bruschetta crafted from homemade bread, topped with tomatoes and fresh basil, parmesan cheese, and olive oil.
Nicola’s ambience is a relaxed, elegant atmosphere—we never felt rushed, but also never ignored. The timing of the food and drinks naturally flowed. Italians are never on a schedule when they “Mangia”; it’s cultural. And when I say elegant—I’m really describing the food. It’s fresh, authentic, the real deal—the whole lasagna; which in my opinion is the elegance of the restaurant.
As we focused on dividing up our dishes of ravioli, fettuccine, and spaghetti for sharing (okay, helping ourselves to each other’s plates!), a sweet faced brunette dressed casually in a red sweater came out the kitchen door. Juggling a commercial carton of eggs in her arms, she turned down a thermostat on the wall next to our table. “I’ve been baking all day and the ovens are hot!” she said aloud. She proceeded to mingle with the “regular” and other customers, and then approached our table. “Hi ladies,” she said. “I’m Nicola, and welcome to Nicola’s!”
And what was Nicola baking that was making her ovens so hot? Some of the best desserts you’ll ever roll around in your mouth. At the end of our meal, we ordered two of Nicola’s desserts to share: Italian Lemon Cream Cake, dense and moist with a little crunch—my favorite combination; and a generous portion of her urban legend, Tiramisu. The usual suspects are all in her gourmet desserts, but Nicola seems to have some kind of culinary magic wand in mixing them all together. Since we didn’t have any room to try her crisp hand-rolled cannoli, she presented us with the chocolate and vanilla cream filling in small little dessert cups along with tasting spoons for each of us. Our eyes closed with our first mouthful… and when we opened our eyes, Nicola smiled and said, “It’s the ricotta.”
So who came closest to our mother’s spaghetti sauce out of all the restaurants we visited? Pasta Amore. But that doesn’t mean Chef Leo’s sauce is better than Nicola’s or any of the other restaurants we visited. Chef Leo referred to one of his sauces as Sugo (our father pronounced it zugu), which is what we remember growing up—and the color, texture and flavor matched our mother’s. But we soon realized that our mom was limited to her spaghetti and meatballs, and so she could never have competed with the variety of Italian dishes Nicola’s or the other restaurants serve. But you could still substitute our mom’s sauce for any of their signature dishes, and they would still keep their five stars!
Thus, we salute all the Five Star Italian cooks everywhere in Omaha who still “make spaghetti” on Sunday. What a delicious and nurturing tradition that remains constant in a constantly changing world. And a special honor to our mother, Nettie Marino, for leaving behind the Ideal Spaghetti Sauce, and with that… an Ideal Life.