By: Melissa A. Kay
Situated in an unassuming Totowa strip mall, Nicola’s Ristorante is a hometown “foodie” favorite, bringing indescribable Italian cuisine to locals and out-of-towners alike who prefer homemade-style fare over fast food or chain restaurant grub that doesn’t even come close. Open seven days a week, Nicola’s is bustling and busy, but never overcrowded. And by the aroma of Italian authenticity wafting through the air as one walks past the brick-faced building, fresh, high-quality food is constantly cooking in the kitchen, luring in passersby who hadn’t necessarily planned to pop in for a bite.
Now calling Totowa home base for ten successful years – a milestone celebration marked this past March – the restaurant was actually established over 25 years ago, previously located in Hawthorne and originally in Woodland Park. Long-running and still at it just as enthusiastically as day one, the family-owned and operated establishment is rooted in generation’s old traditions while mixing in some modern touches to keep things interesting and inviting for the newer generations. As Nick Mariella, co-head chef and son of the restaurant’s owner (also named Nick) says, “Our restaurant is rooted in tradition. We are serving many of the same dishes that gave us our reputation while creating new and exciting things to include on our menus.” To the dining delight of their many patrons, the food never fails to impress, the friendly staff is like family, and a passion for heartiness and happiness is central to Nicola’s prosperity. Mariella says Totowa feels right, for right now and for the years to come. “We plan on making this (Totowa) a long term home for Nicola’s.” Good news for locals who can’t get enough of a good thing!
Nicola’s is welcoming to all, from couples to families, the young and the old, white tablecloth-classy yet casually comfortable, and as appealing to the suit-and-tie business lunch crowd as it is to friends catching up over drinks and a mouthwatering meal. The Nicola’s menu options are plentiful and described delightfully, created with care and love, centered around centuries-old, close-to-the-heart family recipes, and brought to the table with a smile. Mariella notes, “Our signature item on the menu is the homemade orecchiette pasta. It is an ear shaped pasta that my family’s native region of Italy (Bari) is known for. The recipe has been handed down for generations, down to my grandmother to my father to myself. It is a staple on our menu that we are well known for. We also are known for a variety of fresh fish, steaks, and chops. We make our cheesecakes, tiramisu, and many other desserts in house fresh daily.” Never rushed or run-of-the-mill, every dish is made and served with pride, something diners can truly taste as much as the sauces and seasonings.
Along with Mariella’s picks for food favorites, the menu does not end there. Not even close. With both lunch and dinner menus featured, chock-full of appetizers, salads, pastas, entrees, sides, and more, patrons can visit time and time (and time) again and never have the same meal twice. Then again, everyone has their favorite they just can’t pass up when they come back. Hot and cold antipasti dishes including stuffed artichoke, fried calamari, eggplant rollatini, clams oreganata, colossal crabmeat or shrimp cocktail, and caprese with roasted peppers start the meal off on the right track, but folks need to remember to save lots of room for much more deliciousness to come. Nicola’s freshly prepared salads are perfect now that spring is in full swing, from their crisp string bean salad with potatoes, red onion, and tomato, to the beet, mango, and goat cheese salad to a traditional crunchy iceberg wedge topped with crumbled bacon and creamy blue cheese dressing. And could be more “Italian” than a big plate of pasta? Right up there with Mariella’s mention of their famous homemade orecchiette dish, a sampling of their other pastas includes fettuccine Portofino with succulent shrimp, scallops, and shitake mushrooms, substantially stuffed meat or cheese ravioli, sky-high layered lasagna, penne, rigatoni, or fettuccine with vodka sauce, and linguini with zesty red or garlicky white clam sauce. Moving on to meat, there are a number of juicy chicken, veal, seafood, and chop options, as well as perfectly plated entrees like Chilean sea bass, scallops casino, stuffed tilapia, baked salmon with pistachio and Dijon mustard sauce, rack of lamb with a light bread crumb crust, and veal osso buco. In a nutshell, no one’s going home hungry, especially if they end the meal with something sweet like the aforementioned cheesecake, tiramisu, or another tasty treat.
Nicola’s belly-filling lunches and dinners always wow the crowds, so much so, that the restaurant has become well-known for catering offsite as well as being a go-to venue for hosting special events. “We cater parties of all sizes, and offer a range of catering options,” says Mariella. From small gatherings to giant get togethers, Nicola’s gets it right and makes the experience one to remember…and recommend to friends. Baptisms, Sweet 16s, engagements, graduations, rehearsal dinners, birthdays, retirements, reunions, baby showers, bridal showers, bachelor/bachelorette parties and so on are all the more memorable when the food is fabulous and service on point. And Nicola’s understands that each occasion is special for those doing the celebrating, never skimping on top-notch service, and ensuring every party is as perfect as can be. Mariella notes that they plan to expand their offsite catering options, proving they are already doing a great job in this area. The reviews are already in, now it’s time to take it to the next step.
Mariella was practically born into the restaurant business. Since he was a small child, Nicola’s was part of his life, and after earning two college degrees (in finance and economics), he brought what he learned in school into the already well-oiled mix, helping “take (the restaurant) into the new generation,” as he puts it. “I have always been passionate about being in the restaurant business,” something Mariella is proud to explain. “It’s all about passion,” he reiterates. “If you are passionate about it, you will succeed. The restaurant business is a lifestyle with long hours and late nights, but if you love what you do you will never feel like you are working.” With a sentiment such as this, Mariella must be at “play” all day! Working alongside family makes the restaurant feel like home, and with customers who have been enjoying Nicola’s fine food for all these years, Mariella’s “family” extends well into the community and outward.
Nicola’s Ristorante is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. through 10:00 p.m. Saturday hours are 1:00 p.m. through 10:00 p.m. and Sunday they open at 1:00 p.m. and close at 9:00 p.m. Reservations are gladly accepted, and their private parking lot is an added convenience for drivers. Patrons are welcome to dress casually, yet the atmosphere is upscale, although not stiff or stuffy. No matter what items are chosen off the menu, lunch or dinner is sure to be nothing short of delightful. No time to go out? Order takeout or delivery for Nicola’s great taste in your dining room. Nicola’s caters to their customers whether they dine in or hang out at home. In the end, it all comes down to the food, and Nicola’s has been perfecting their passion for 25+ years. Here’s to another 25 (or more) to come! Totowa is one lucky town to have Nicola’s Ristorante front and center. A strip mall has never been more satisfying.
Nicola’s is located at 650 Union Blvd., Ste. 4, Totowa. Their phone number is 973-653-3636.