Address: 366 N. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-584-4760, nicoaz.com
Hours: Brunch/lunch M-F 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sa-Su 8 a.m.-2 p.m.;
dinner 4-10 p.m. daily.
Highlights: Carpaccio ($11); salsicce ($12);
chicken scaloppini ($17); smoked duck ($24);
pork Milanese ($24); classic crêpe ($13);
Nico Benedict ($14); brown butter French toast ($12)
Chef Gio Osso’s new restaurant is a family affair. Named after his first child, Nico, the Gilbert eatery sports elements of its sibling and predecessor, Scottsdale’s award-winning Virtù Honest Craft – including its legendary grilled octopus appetizer.
Osso intended a more family-friendly vibe here. But a word of warning: The trendy exposed brick, houndstooth-patterned open ceiling and mirrors make Nico’s noise level on par with the last Slipknot concert I attended. Best to leave the little ones at home.
Acoustics aside, Nico is a solid addition to downtown Gilbert’s burgeoning dinner scene. Osso’s “West Coast inspired” Italian dinner menu varies near-daily depending on available ingredients, with selections ranging from Virtù favorites to housemade pastas and pork chops that pay homage to Osso’s Calabrian roots. Nico lacks the spot-on balance of simplicity and rustic elegance that distinguishes Virtù; still, there are plenty of meaty, spice-driven dishes that please.
Consider the carpaccio. Paper-thin slices of salty, air-dried beef are tender yet chewy, with a robust vinegary tang that holds up against pungent aged parmesan and crunchy crostini. Nico’s salsicce sampler also shines thanks to potent Portuguese chistorra, a meaty, fast-cured Spanish sausage that boasts a spicy chorizo taste without the greasiness of its common, breakfast-burrito-dwelling cousin. On the less-than-spectacular side: Nonna’s meatballs have a moist pork and beef base but lack the heady basil and oregano of Old World-style Italian cuisine.
Nico’s homestyle pastas aren’t quite elite – which is to say, they don’t quite measure up to Chris Bianco’s buttery scarpinòcc or the sausage orecchiette at Sassi. Skip the bland, flabby black pepper pappardelle in favor of flavorful penne sugo with prosciutto and peas. Its sauce is creamy and rich with a subtly spicy burn – far more palatable than the former’s watery pork gravy. Better yet, head for entrees that put meat front and center.
Served over creamy parmesan polenta and studded with dried apricots, raisins and pine nuts, Osso’s take on chicken scaloppini is sweet and tangy, with a Moroccan influence reminiscent of the robust stews cooked in a traditional tagine. Bone-in Milanese pork chop is tender and flavorful with delicate breading and a savory wine-spiked sauce, yet it lacks the singular sumptuousness of smoked duck with cooked black plums. I’m not usually a fan of the fatty fowl, but this duck left my tablemates marveling.
Osso’s firstborn must love mornings, because his namesake restaurant dishes up beautiful breakfasts. Silky Gruyère and Mornay sauce pair with a perfectly cooked over-medium egg in the fluffy classic crêpe, and chile hollandaise adds depth to sanguine mortadella-topped eggs Benedict that taste buttery and fresh. Osso’s tomato and prosciutto cast iron focaccia skillet is a dead ringer for pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets – good thing they were my favorite college staple! – while brown butter French toast is an all-ages treat with its gooey mascarpone and sweet, heady cinnamon peaches.
Like little Nico himself, the newest addition to Osso’s restaurant famiglia is a hybrid of classic Italian and modern American. Where Virtù is the sophisticated big brother, Nico has a few hallmarks of its youth: namely ambience issues, slow service and a few pasta perils. But with a little refinement to the carbs and the addition of fabric baffles to temper the noise level, Nico could easily live up to its family’s reputation.
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