Opening a second restaurant while the first still hums along—especially when the two are disparate approaches—is arguably challenging. It is entirely unfair to compare Nico Heirloom Kitchen, chef Gio Osso’s new urban hangout, to Virtù, the Scottsdale-based fine-dining concept that earned him a James Beard nomination and recognition in Esquire magazine soon after its opening in 2013.
Like many sibling sets, while the younger often deserves credit for its efforts to shine, the predecessor remains the pioneer, the original, often the more appealing choice. Virtù is the savvier, sexier, more avant-garde of the two; it’s the Luke to Owen Wilson, the Alec to Stephen Baldwin. Yet while Virtù has its virtues, Nico boasts a vibe all its own, nestled in an incredibly trendy location, Heritage Marketplace, among other cool kids like Barrio Cafe, Sushi Brokers and Postino.
Osso’s wife, Bethany, is mostly responsible for the new look. The interior designer worked with Erin Liston of Iconic Design Studio to turn a blank space into a chic eatery perfect for a lunch date, Friday-night escape, causal business tête-à-tête or happy hour standby. Brick veneers and blue-gray paint adorn the walls, dotted with photos of Osso’s family in Calabria, Italy; and New Jersey, while a garage door-style glass wall facing the street opens to invite patrons to enjoy the elements on nicer days. Tilted mirrors inside allow diners sitting in distressed brown leather banquettes to watch the action going on at the bar behind them, while the open kitchen and visible wood-fired oven provide limited peripheral distraction. Whimsical details—like cobalt-blue metal chairs, houndstooth check wallpaper on the ceiling and graphic wall tiles—round out the scene, all awash in the sounds of eclectic music.
While the mix of colors, textures and sounds are appealing, so is Nico’s originative cocktail menu. In addition to a short but respectable list of wines and beers is El Conquistador, a twist on a traditional shaken margarita with a kick of Homeboy’s Hot Sauce and pineapple cordial; and Soda Pesca, a fizzy bourbon-tainted sipper with hibiscus sour and peach bitters, for example. All of the selections likely pair well with Nico’s most popular snacks, namely the warm Marcona almonds and roasted garbanzos; the creamy burrata and crunchy Parmesan biscotti starter; and the octopus with Calabrese chile butter, which gained popularity at Virtù. Osso says his grandmother taught him to braise the sea creature with a wine cork in order to yield just the right combination of chewy and tender. Though it was challenging to wrangle the accompanying garbanzo beans, the peppery arugula complement made for quite a bite.
Less demanding was the smoked duck with Agritopia black plums, served with two spoonfuls of Valdeón blue cheese and sprinkled with edible flowers; and veal marsala, a nod to the classic dish, punched with black pepper and a dollop of creamy polenta.
The spinach pappardelle pork rib sugo first arrived far short of al dente, but the second go was respectably prepared with the thick ribbons blanketed in tender shreds of pork and a flavorful tomato-based sauce with housemade ricotta.
In stark contrast to the savory entrees were sugary desserts, including sticky toffee cake and bruleed bananas with a pile of homemade brittle and a scoop of coconut gelato; along with the s’mores tiramisu for two, served in a Mason jar with graham cracker crumbles and hot fudge drizzles. The campfire scent of roasted marshmallows that announced its arrival was deliriously appealing.
After our server, Ivan, brought the bill, he suggested we grace a table sometime at Virtù, his home base. Apparently Osso is currently rotating employees between both locations, including five sous chefs—one of whom is Matthew Grunwald, the second finalist eliminated on season 11 of Food Network Star. Though the staff may traverse between restaurants and any new restaurant comes with a learning curve, everyone we encountered seemed comfortable, trained and skilled—almost like parents welcoming their second child.
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