One great year at an upscale restaurant can win a pedigreed chef one of the glitzier categories in the "Oscars of food." Beard nominees for Best Chef in Northwest include fresh faces like Roe's Trent Pierce and Castagna's Justin Woodward. On the other hand, it usually takes a lifetime to win America's Classics, which goes to exceptional taco shops, landmark barbecue pits and palaces of pastramidom.
The 15 Classics I've been to include the places that invented the buffalo wing and waffle cone (Anchor Bar in Buffalo, Doumar's in Norfolk, Va.), Seattle's century-old sushi joint (Maneki) and the best huevos rancheros at any car wash in America (El Paso's H&H). Other Classics have named an R.E.M. album ("Automatic for the People" is the slogan of Weaver D's in Athens, Ga.) and invented the French dip (Philippe's in Los Angeles).
Last week, Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnville got the nod, joining Southwest Portland's Original Pancake House, which won 15 years ago. After swinging through on Saturday night, that's an honor I'll toast, even if Nick's is probably more notable as a clubhouse for pinotphiles souvenir-shopping by the case after IPNC (in other words, Beard judges) than somewhere Portlanders should drive an hour to drop $100 on dinner for two.
At its best moments, Nick's reminded me of an older cousin to Ava Gene's, with delicate housemade pasta, chummy service and an exceptional wine list. Other times—a pork sausage that came out undercooked, translucent pink and mushy in the center—it shows some of those unfortunate wrinkles restaurants develop after passing to a second generation.
Nick's opened in 1977, but don't expect a broken-in Italian joint with signed photos of Sinatra on the walls. The contemporary dining room was remodeled in February 2013, with one wall covered in used wine barrels and woven together like a Longaberger basket, and the other lined with banquettes.
Wine is, of course, a focus, with a half-dozen local and Italian reds available by the glass. They're serious about it, too: Believing our DeFerrari to be very slightly corked, the waitress brought a replacement.
The best of our five courses was little bowls of pork and spinach ravioli ($15)—Nick's will happily split any dish in the kitchen—a limber square-inch of noodle boiled to leave just a hint of tension and served in a sage-inflected butter sauce with shavings of salty Parmesan on top. We also loved the winter squash salad ($9), a pile of arugula, chopped squash, fried Brussels sprouts hot out of the pan and pickled onion sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts and a very mild red wine vinaigrette.
Nick's pizza, new since Nick Peirano's daughter Carmen and her husband took over the place in 2007, has a homespun quality, more like something made by a superb home cook than the product of a full-time pizzaiolo. These wood-fired pies ($15-17) are loafy, with the subtle flavor of fresh Italian bread and very little of the sour crackle that comes after spending a few days proofing in a bowl. We still enjoyed a pie made with Nick's own sausage and creamy mozzarella, with slices of yellow and green zucchini.
The sausage is far better on the pie than on the pork plate ($24), where it was left undercooked. Our waitress offered to "throw it back on the grill," though it had been sliced lengthwise and likely would have bled out its juices. The plate also included sliced spareribs and a wee shish kebab of pork tenderloin and fingerling potatoes.
And for dessert? There's housemade gelato, but we opted for creme brulee. Nick's version is wholly competent and quite like most other creme brulee. In other words, it's appropriately classic.
EAT: Nick's Italian Cafe, 521 NE 3rd St., McMinnville, 434-4471, nicksitaliancafe.com.