"We're not looking to become millionaires," says Sweeney. "We just want to pay the bills and have a nice life. . . . And we basically want to focus on simple food done well."
The result may not be the kind of fine-dining destination that merits a drive from far afield. But the little BYOB they created has the charm, personality and value to be a delightful neighborhood fixture, especially for an emerging neighborhood like Pennsport in deep South Philly, which had yet to score its go-to local bistro.
It's a concept that resonates in a perfect bowl of mussels, basking in a tan broth steeped with wine, tomatoes and hickory-smoked chunks of bacon. Or a flash-grilled round of stretchy pizza dough topped with molten streams of white cheddar and deep green florets of broccoli. Or a hearty fall salad of crisp-skinned duck breast fanned medium-rare beside tufts of bitter frisee and sweet Gala apples shined with tart cider vinaigrette.
That particular duck may come and go on Nicholas' menu, which changes substantially from week to week. And if the Nicks don't want to make an elaborate sauce or starch for every dish, that's their call - though some offerings could use one or the other to be more complete. But when food is as fresh and priced as fairly as it is at Nicholas, where every entree is $19 or less, the lack of fuss and trimmings is easier to overlook.
Matteo and Sweeney had long talked of opening a restaurant together, mulling the possibilities over years of friendly beers and barbecues in Matteo's backyard. Their powers of suggestion must be very strong: the low-slung brick building that became Nicholas now sits with its chocolate-brown awnings directly across East Moyamensing Avenue from Matteo's backyard. Formerly a gelateria called Caffe Carmen, it was pounced on by the duo the moment it became available.
Like many of the city's BYOBs, it's tiny, so small they've yet to expand with outdoor tables on the wide Moyamensing sidewalk because there's nowhere to store the furniture. Inside, meanwhile, the 33-seat dining room has been crisply redone, with warm burgundy earth tones and colorful Italian Market-inspired paintings on the wall, an unvarnished wood sideboard, and tall black tables giving the space a casual, lively feel.
It is the spare but satisfying aesthetic of Matteo and Sweeney's food, though, that really gives it life.
Considering their experiences at Morimoto and Striped Bass, where Matteo spent several months mastering the art of butchering fish (he also later worked for purveyor Samuels & Son), I expected more seafood on this menu. But the determination to keep every entree under $20 makes that a challenge.
What seafood I did taste, however, was expertly done. The grilled fresh calamari were cooked just enough, the tender tubes tossed with piquant kalamata olives, lemony artichokes, and an earthy oregano vinaigrette. A mixed beet salad brightened with champagne vinaigrette was a textural play, with downy-soft nuggets of sweet lump crab tossed amid snappy crimson cubes of beet and juicy orange segments.
Two fish entrees had serious potential - a beautifully seared slice of mahimahi over corn and potato hash, and a rosemary-crusted tuna loin set beside rich potato gratin and sauteed spinach. A lack of visible sauce on both of them, though, left the dishes feeling dry. Whether it's a sauceless design or just a lack of effort I couldn't say, but with all these good ingredients in place, I'd gladly pay an extra $1 or $2 for a splash of something to make them sing.
Nicholas' other grilled pizza, topped with sausage, peppers and cheese, was also missing a sauce, not simply for flavor (the pie itself was tasty), but to keep the meat crumbles from rolling off the crust.
The kitchen's meat entrees, though, were plenty juicy. The miso-rubbed club steak (a loin cut sometimes called Delmonico) was perfectly cooked, and one of the better $17 steaks I've had in town. One week's menu presented it with a hash of potatoes, roasted carrots and flavorful mushrooms. A more recent, Asian-ized version came with Japanese white sweet potatoes, Chinese broccoli, and tiny enoki mushrooms soaked in a gingery jus. A smoked pork chop scattered with salty gorgonzola cheese, meanwhile, basked in the juices of a grilled peach marinated in rum and molasses.
The tender grilled chicken breast had more than enough of its sweet and spicy chile sauce. But this dish, with a fresh medley of stir-fried vegetables, could have used a starch - jasmine rice? - to lend the brothy plate some ballast.
Still, I happily ate it all. This wasn't the kind of fare that fans the flames of Iron Chefs or draws hordes to Restaurant Row. But it was just the kind of homey meal with a distinctive and well-turned twist that, at $16, might entice a neighbor to forgo cooking one night and amble on down Moyamensing for a pleasant bite.
The neighbors, though, might plan to head back home for dessert, because I doubt there's any proud South Philadelphian who can't cook a better cheesecake than the burnt-bottom, cinnamon-dusted, concave mess of a fallen cheesecake that came to our table. Also, learning that the recipe for Nicholas' "Better Than Sex" chocolate cake came from one of the chef's grandmothers was a bit of TMI - considering the dry slice of bundt that followed.
Then again, the small kitchens of Philadelphia's chef-driven BYOs (with a couple of exceptions) have a long tradition of uninspired desserts, as few have the luxury of a pastry chef, a standard feature in the city's big-ticket restaurants. So I won't hold it too much against the two chefs named Nick - at least, not yet. They clearly remembered to give their casual new bistro the one essential ingredient it needs to eventually become complete: heart.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Da Vinci Ristorante in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.