The once-beachy 500 block of Main Street in Huntington Beach has been permanently brought to shore by a swank development of condos. Niccole's, a handsome Italian restaurant that looks like a giant, two-story muffin, is part of the same gentrifying wave.
But Huntington Beach hasn't yet lost its character. The other day, as I was daydreaming over my linguine at one of Niccole's many panoramic view windows, I gazed out and saw a half-naked man on a skateboard being pulled down Main by his dog. There are some forces that even the mighty bulldozer cannot put to rest.
Niccole's is a rather grandiose round building with an all-glass front and a funny, hat-shaped roof. An exterior balcony runs around part of the second tier where you can stand in the twilight, drink in hand, and pretend you are a guest in a real Tuscan villa. Until one of the surf bums below reminds you that PCH is only five blocks away.
The interior is striking and tasteful. Downstairs, the airy, peach-colored chamber is made rustic and comfortable by terra cotta walls and a gray slate floor. Upstairs, an equally well-appointed room beckons, featuring the same design elements as the downstairs, such as etched glass work resembling splashing water and hand crafted chairs of red mahogany.
The restaurant's young Sicilian chef, Michael Russo, recently cooked at Ciao Bella in Fountain Valley, where he made a hit with local foodies. Russo is a real talent, comfortable with Italian cuisine from top to bottom, and a stickler for ingredients that are strictly top-notch. He's got real imagination, too.
Take something like antipasto all'Italiana, an undefined set of appetizers that theoretically can be just about anything. Russo makes up a whimsical plateful of delicacies: pungent, marinated cauliflower and carrot, rolled prosciutto, Nicoise olives rolled in imported mortadella, smoked mozzarella with fresh diced tomato, and anything else that might catch his fancy that day. It's one of the best antipasti I've had anywhere.
Or take the house green salad, to which he adds walnuts, Gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar. All of the salads are done with flair, actually, from frutti di mare with mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari to Calabrese, a simple salad of sliced tomato, red onion and black olives in a classy vinaigrette. There is a fine line between the mundane and the sublime, and this chef seems consistently to be on the right side of it.
His pastas, for example, are just about perfect, cooked al dente and splashed with fragrant sauces that don't kill you with richness. Fettucine norcia, for one, sounds impossibly rich, with the words "spicy sausage" and "cream" written in underneath on the menu description. But it turns out to be one of the lightest dishes on the menu, a symphony of fresh, chewy noodles in a gossamer sauce made pink with tomato and just the lightest touch of cream.
And then there is perciatelli amartrigiana (yes, amartrigiana, not amatriciana; the word is spelled in Russo's native Sicilian dialect): thick spaghetti in a delicate sauce of chunked tomato, slightly carmelized onion and smoky pancetta (Italian bacon). Bravissimo.
Most of the pastas here are made fresh, but even the ones Russo buys turn out to be terrific. Ziti and penne are two that are almost never made in a restaurant kitchen, tube-like pastas that need to be extruded one by one. Here, they get royal treatment.
Ziti Sicilane is a dish of the shorter tubes, in a refreshingly piquant marinara sauce with sauteed eggplant and zucchini. And penne Barese is even better, the longer tubes in a simple mixture of broccoli, garlic and sweet smelling, rosemary-infused olive oil.
Russo scores again with his main dishes, many of which have personal touches that make them stand out. Vitello Versace is about my favorite (could Versace be Milan designer Gianni Versace? The chef won't say), a schnitzel-like cutlet pounded thin with a crisp breading. What makes the dish special is the topping, a checca- like mixture of chopped tomato and basil with a heap of chopped arugula mixed in. It's such a natural combination I couldn't help wondering why I'd never seen it before.
Or how about poletto martone, a cornish game hen pounded thin with a hammer and grilled nearly black. It's a wonderful dish that you cannot stop eating, right down to its sage and lemon flavored bones.
The good farfalle (bow tie) pasta and sauteed spinach that accompany the main courses are destined to be ignored. The meats themselves are just too substantial.
You won't want to ignore desserts, though. All of them are made on the premises, and a few are really original. One night, I had poached pear in pear puree with mascarpone cheese and whole walnuts. Another, I had the house canoli, a boat-like cream cheese pastry with a mascarpone-based filling laced with bitter chocolate and candied fruits.
The service is still a bit rough here (a wait for bread, dishes cleared haphazardly) and the restaurant could use a few more Italian wines (from a wine list so new you can still smell the vinyl covering the pages). But basically, this is one of the best new restaurants of the year. I'll definitely be back. Even if I have to come on a skateboard.
Niccole's is moderately priced. Antipasti are $5.75 to $7.95. Pastas are $7.25 to $9.50. Main dishes are $10.95 to $14.95.
520 Main St., Huntington Beach. (714) 960-8091.
Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday. All major cards.