East End Eats: Nick and Toni’s Does Wonderful Things

They are in their 25th year of robust success
Much has changed in the Nick and Toni’s decor, but its chef, Joe Realmuto, and the red horse remain the same. Morgan McGivern

Nick and Toni’s
136 North Main Street
East Hampton
324-3550
Friday and Saturday, 6-10:30 p.m.
Sunday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Monday and Thursday, 6-10 p.m.

   Nick and Toni’s Restaurant is like the ideal lover or spouse.  Of course you want one that supports you and comforts you and takes care of you, but if you can find one that constantly surprises you, that is ideal. There are no other restaurants on the East End that change their menus so frequently and creatively.  As they are in their 25th year of robust success (rare!) and have recently completed a renovation, we felt they warranted a second review.
    The changes to the interior are subtle. It is a sleeker but at the same time more comfortable space. There are beautiful grey-green-taupe banquettes, a higher ceiling, and super-cool bathrooms. (So cool, I might just order my zucchini chips to be delivered to the one behind the woodburning pizza oven.)
    The pretty bistro chairs are still in place, surrounding black walnut tables.  A temporary, but very attractive, oak bar is awaiting a zinc top. It still feels like a cozy farmhouse with lots of windows. (I can still feel Ma Bergmann’s.) An impressive collection of outsider artwork adorns the walls of all three dining rooms.
    Upon being seated you get a basket of delicious, chewy, rustic bread and some fruity Greek olive oil, along with a little dish of marinated black and green olives. If you ask for salt and pepper, they are offered in two small mounds on a slab of black slate with a sprig of rosemary dividing them. Simply charming.
    On a recent visit we began our meal with calamari salad, a pizzette, and a springtime special, a half order of sweet-pea ravioli. The grilled calamari salad was delicious, dressed in a slightly spicy, slightly sweet chili vinaigrette, tossed with frisee and a smattering of oil-cured olives. You don’t see oil-cured olives very often and they were a great addition. Their flavor is assertively salty, a tad bitter, and the texture nicely chewy with the crunchy frisee and tender calamari.
    The pizzette was a well charred thin-crust pizza with just enough tomato sauce, some slivers of artichoke, and fresh mozzarella. The sweet-pea ravioli was dreamy — tender pockets filled with pureed peas, served in a buttery mint and tarragon sauce. We also received an amuse-bouche of scallop ceviche, one spoonful each of silky scallops brought to life with a citrusy spicy dressing.
    For entrees we ordered roasted cod, the vegetarian option of spring fava and morel ragu with grilled sweet potato, and a special that evening, antelope. The cod was just right, well crusted and seasoned on the outside, cooked just enough on the inside. It was served on a bed of black barley that had delicious bits of something sweet and anise-like that I couldn’t identify because I forgot what the menu description was, duh. It was caramelized fennel. The dish was topped with bright pink julienned slivers of watermelon radish. The whole thing was pretty and delicious and seemed rich but wasn’t.
    The spring fava and morel ragu is insanely good and I have had it twice.  This time the fava beans were quite al dente. The sauce is rich from creme fraiche; it is a naughty and nice vegetarian choice.
    The antelope was also a big hit, beautifully presented with peas, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, and roasted red peppers in a sauce tasting subtly of smoked paprika. The antelope was served rare and was tender and full of flavor.
    On the night of our visit the staff was well aware that it was a review. We were barely hiding in plain sight. I had, coincidentally, dined there twice the week before, so I have to mention a few more dishes I tried.
    The arugula, kale, and grapefruit salad with avocado vinaigrette is excellent and the grilled sardines outstanding.  The Caesar salad, always on the menu, is a classic version, properly proportioned with lemon, anchovy, garlic, and cheese.  The zucchini chips are the best around, bar none, a pile of paper-thin discs of crispness without the weight of oil, served with wedges of lemon. Our waiter, Radu, was knowledgeable, professional, and very entertaining.
    The prices at Nick and Toni’s are moderate to expensive. The prix fixe is an incredible deal, as you can order anything on the menu and get three courses for $35. Appetizers are $13 to $18, pastas and risotto $22 to $28, entrees $28 to $46, sides $8 to $12, and desserts are $10 to $20, although you can get smaller portions for one for $6, two for $11, and three for $14.
    For desserts we ordered the rosemary cake, mascarpone panino, Limoncello tiramisu, and a quarter of their famous signature dessert, the tartufo. The rosemary cake was a dainty round of fragrant moist cake served with olive oil gelato and slices of blood orange. There was a hint of salt on the olive oil gelato.
    The mascarpone panino was our favorite, a gingery carrot cake topped with crunchy cashew brittle, with a baby scoop of mascarpone gelato. A toasted coconut tuile added some more glamour and crunch. The Limoncello tiramisu was a pretty, snow-white dessert, comprised of a layer of creamy sweet fiore de latte on top of moistened lady fingers. The sorbet served with it was tart and refreshing.
    The tartufo, when served whole, is huge, thus the $20 price tag. This is a dessert to be shared. It is a labor-intensive multi-layered concoction of caramel truffle, chocolate and hazelnut gelato, and almond biscotti crumbs, encased in a dark chocolate shell — basically, my favorite food groups.
    I have said this before but I’ll say it again. While Nick and Toni’s has a reputation as a celebrity clubhouse, I can assure you that the gracious and lovely ladies in charge, Bonnie and Kristen, will greet you as warmly as Alec and Hilaria. Joey Realmuto, the executive chef, continues to surprise  with creative and ever-changing, seriously seasonal dishes.
    William Hawkins, one of the outsider artists featured here, once said of his work, “You have to do something wonderful, so people know who you are.” Nick and Toni’s, you continue to consistently do wonderful things, and we are lucky to know who you are.