Williston can't seem to get its fill of big-box, best-buy American capitalism. But shoppers may give up chain chow after tasting Frank Pace's chicken saltimbocca on a bed of escarole and white beans at Nicco's Cucina -- a locally owned Italian restaurant opening later this month in the maze of merchant-made Maple Tree Place.
Just a stone's throw from Dick's, food aficionados will soon find Frank's shrimp horseradish, his tre funghi pizza, or, if you come on the right giorno, his lemon mascarpone soup with plump Prince Edward Island mussels.
Pace says "real food" is what's cooking at Nicco's, which, at full capacity, seats about 115. Its stained concrete floor and black-and-orange decor lend the place an urban ambiance that's softened by colorful, cartoony murals depicting the pastoral life of the restaurant's fictional namesake. "We call this the oasis in the middle of... you know what I mean," Pace says, stopping short of disparaging the neighborhood. "We're not going to be Chili's or Longhorn Steakhouse."
Nicco's is not the first fine restaurant to open in a shopping mall. In sprawling cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, it's not unusual to find top-rated eateries in a plaza out on the strip. A Single Pebble started the trend in Vermont in 1997 when it opened next to a bowling alley on the Barre-Montpelier Road. Discriminating diners came from all over the state to taste Steve Bogart's unique Chinese food.
Cannon's Italian restaurant opened just over a year ago in the newly refurbished commercial center of Burlington's New North End, within walking distance of the "cheap seats" at Ethan Allen Cinemas. It struck a perfect balance between elegant and accessible, romantic and family-friendly -- somewhere between Burlington's upscale L'Amante and diner-style Bove's.
Nicco's was envisioned along the same lines by Jim Reiman and Robert Meyers, co-owners of Three Tomatoes restaurants in Burlington, Rutland and Lebanon, New Hampshire. And coincidentally, the restaurant is right next to Williston's new movie theater, which can seat 1600 at full capacity. "If we get 100 of that, we're busy," says Pace, noting Nicco's will expand by 50 seats when the outdoor patio opens this summer.
It seems like a no-brainer -- unless you object to treeless Boxwood Street and prefer to eat out of sight of your car. Although a housing development backs up onto Maple Tree Place, the general overall feeling is transient. Williston is Vermont's Motor City. Cannon's is cosier. Despite its proximity to a grocery store, the restaurant is surrounded by neighborhoods and homes. You could walk there.
If Nicco's is to succeed, it has to serve daytime shoppers hungry for deals at Wal-Mart and Home Depot; "We're targeting a broad spectrum of people," says Pace, pointing to six-seater booths that are perfect for groups in the center of the restaurant. The menu, too, offers accessible edibles. Nothing costs more than $13.95. You can get pizza and panini to-go throughout the day. Virtually everything is available for take-out starting at 5 p.m.
By night, Nicco's aspires to be an area dining destination. Pace knows Burlington foodies won't be adequately enticed by a "Three Tomatoes on 2A" or "Sarducci's-for-shoppers." So the 31-year-old chef will be offering multi-course, prix-fixe "tasting menus" -- almost every night but Friday and Saturday -- that make eating an adventure.
His mascarpone mussel soup is definitely worth driving for -- a rich mix of white wine, mussel broth and lemon served with just the right amount of creamy froth on top. Ditto the roasted monkfish with artichoke and grapefruit nage. Dessert is granita with blood oranges and shredded mint followed by homemade biscotti -- cakey, not breaky -- in two varieties: chocolate chip-cranberry-pistachio and almond-anise.
Pace, who is half Italian, knows his way around a kitchen. He grew up in his father's diner-style restaurant in Ludlow and was still a teenager when he started cooking at Sweet Tomatoes (now Three Tomatoes) in Burlington. He stayed in touch with Reiman and Meyers when he moved to San Francisco to attend a two-year program at the California Culinary Academy.
After graduation, Pace worked for seven years in Bay Area restaurants, including Aqua, Azie and Alain Rondelli. He lived above the famed Zuni Cafe and ate up the culinary philosophy of its chef, Judy Rodgers, and that of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Both women championed cooking with fresh, high-quality, seasonal ingredients.
Pace came back to Vermont to run the kitchen at Centerra Grill in Hanover -- another Reiman and Meyers collaboration that was more upscale than Sweet Tomatoes. Sleek and pricey, Centerra looked like it belonged in a major metropolitan area. But alas, it was in a New Hampshire shopping center. The area "didn't have the amount of people to supply that kind of place and that kind of food," observes Pace. He was "doing a lot of Nobu stuff at the time," he says, referring to the exclusive, new-style Japanese restaurant in New York City. Reiman and Meyers eventually sold Centerra, but they didn't want to lose their chef. Presented with the opportunity to craft the cuisine at Nicco's, he moved north -- and waited.
For the past year Pace has been working as a caterer, cooking mostly for private parties. His elaborate meals can last up to seven hours. "That must have been the lobster dinner, for my birthday last year," says Patty Nunnink, who has hired Pace to cook for several events at her home in Charlotte. "The presentation is beautiful. He's like an artist -- with a plate."
Photographer Sabin Gratz has also seen Pace in action. "All the courses tie together in some way," he says, describing in detail the way the chef uses aromatherapy -- or "vapors," as he calls it -- to foreshadow the flavors of the meal. He brings out individual bowls of spices -- rosemary and cinnamon, say, or thyme and coriander -- and pours hot water over them. He'll do the same thing at Nicco's. "It smells so good throughout the meal," Gratz recalls. "It's really cool."
Pace also makes a point of incorporating local ingredients into his tasting menus -- even when it means foraging for wild mushrooms, or going the distance for fresh fish. In that spirit, Pace plans to make Nicco's part of the Vermont Fresh Network, which encourages restaurants to buy goods from area farmers. He's currently developing a custom panini bread with Red Hen Bakery in Duxbury.
"There's not really anything in Williston like that," observes Nunnink, who plans to be a regular at Nicco's and also hopes to lure Pace back to her kitchen for special occasions. "I'd go anywhere he cooks."