Digs Change but Nick’s the Same
Nick pulls his ancient brown-and-beige Dodge van up to the back entrance of his eponymous restaurant and pizzeria. “Uh-oh, here comes the big noisemaker,” says a vendor standing at the end of the bar waiting for Nick’s wife, Lisa, to write him a check.
Nick sticks his head in the back door and yells into the kitchen. He wants his son, Joe, to come out to the van and help unload some boxes of produce. But it’s the middle of the lunch rush on a Friday and Joe is cooking. He doesn’t have time. Nick throws his hands up and yells something; two minutes later, both Joe and another cook are carrying cardboard boxes through the back door.
“Did you have something to eat?” Lisa asks the vendor, who is keeping an eye on Nick as he bursts through the double-wide doors from the kitchen to the dining room.
“I don’t have time,” he says, folding the check in half and sticking it in his pocket.
“A sandwich,” Lisa says. She puts a motherly hand on the shoulder of Maureen, the young girl in black leather pants and a peasant scarf behind the bar taking to-go orders, and tells her to order the man a submarine sandwich. “Quickly,” she says. Maureen runs the order back to the kitchen.
Nick, sweating like a prizefighter though it is barely 60 degrees out, stands in the middle of the dining room looking over the lunch crowd. If ever the word patriarch suited a man, Nick would be it. He looks like Gen. George Patton reviewing the troops as he stands there with his chest out, testing the elasticity in the gray suspenders he wears to hold up his black-and-white checked polyester pants. He is red-faced, red-chested and his frizzy salt-and-pepper hair glistens from his morning labors.
Everyone in the restaurant--Carlo and the other waiter, the two busboys, Maureen behind the bar--has been bustling about bringing out plates of antipasto misto and baskets of garlic bread and cups of foamy cappuccino, but now with Nick standing there like the lion king, the pace doubles. A busboy sweeps up a broken glass. Maureen runs back to the kitchen to see where the vendor’s submarine sandwich is. Carlo rushes out tiramisu to a table of women in tennis togs.
Nick snaps his suspenders a couple more times before going over to a table full of Costa Mesa police and paramedics. He shakes hands, pats them on the shoulder, instructs a busboy to bring two more baskets of garlic bread to dip into the golden sauce atop lobster ravioli, the special of the day.
“Something we’re adding to the menu,” Nick tells the policemen. “Joey gets bored. He likes to try something different.” Nick shrugs, as if to say, “It’s OK with me. As long as he doesn’t mess around with my pizza.”
Two elderly gentlemen speaking Italian come in, and Lisa, who has just put on a CD that sounds like it could be titled “Favorite Italian Love Songs of the ‘60s,” seats them in a corner near the kitchen, where Nick comes over to join them. He signals for Carlo, the waiter, to come over. The old gents want iced tea, no ice. When Carlo tells them about the lobster ravioli, the old men laugh.
“You’re making lobster ravioli now?” says one of them.
Meanwhile, his son Joe, in a crisp chef’s shirt and a black baseball cap that says “Players,” comes out from the kitchen to say hello to a young couple drinking white wine and picking at a plate of calamari in a tomato sauce. He asks them about their meal, then excuses himself to go back behind the bar, where he changes the music--to Aretha Franklin--and turns it up. His father looks at him but says nothing.
This is the first time I’ve been to Nick’s since he moved into the new place after the remodel of the Harbor Center. I used to frequent his pizzeria when it was a steamy hole-in-the-wall sandwiched between a shoe-repair shop and an aging JCPenney. I probably ate Nick’s pizza at least once a month for five years, but I never actually dined in the restaurant.
I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that it had bad fluorescent lighting, pale green walls and rickety latticework covered with very dusty fake grapevines. I think he had a few pasta dishes and sandwiches on the menu, but his pizza was the thing. Everyone knew about Nick’s pizza. It was as chewy and thick as fresh doughnuts and covered in a spicy sauce with thick slices of pepperoni or chunky meatballs. I don’t care what you say about New York-style cheese or Chicago pizzerias, Nick’s was the best.
So the shoe-repair shop is long gone, as is JCPenney, both replaced by a Home Depot that backs up to the house on College Drive where my son learned to walk 18 years ago. And Nick has some new digs at the Harbor Center. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. There are paintings of Venice on the wall, and the floor is a brown and green Italian tile, and there is an alabaster statue meant to replicate a Michelangelo, I’m sure, by the take-out counter. It’s a lot better than those mismatched tables and dusty fake grapevines, I’ll tell you that, but I can’t help but feel, watching Nick as he chats with his old Italian buddies, that he looks a little out of place here in his own restaurant.
My waiter, Carlo, says people still come to Nick’s primarily for the pizza. “But Joe is trying other things,” he says. Like the lobster ravioli. And the minimalist Futura pizza, a meatless concoction made solely with tomatoes, basil, garlic and parmigiano. A bit of a nod, it seems to me, to chef Wolfgang Puck.
Back in 1968, when Nick opened his pizzeria, he probably would have laughed at anyone who ordered a pizza with no sauce and no mozzarella. But times have changed and the Futura pizza is a hit.
Nick strolls over as I’m finishing my cappuccino. “You’ve been in here before, right?” he says, staring at me. I smile and tell him sure, who hasn’t? He asks me what I had and I tell him just a Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza, like I always have. “You didn’t try the lobster ravioli?” he asks.
“Next time,” I tell him.
“You like my pizza best,” he says, pleased.
Nick says something to his son, then walks across the parking lot to his old two-tone Dodge van. He gets inside and just sits there for a minute looking at the restaurant--his restaurant. Then he honks his horn, at no one in particular, and drives away, leaving his son to finish up the afternoon.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
David Lansing’s column is published on Fridays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.