Finally—a good, casual, reasonably priced Italian wine bar in Westchester
By Julia Sexton
One of the beautiful things about Italy is that while Italians revere the pleasures of the dining table, they also like to snack throughout the day. Late diners in general, Italians measure their long days with sips and bites: a slurp of espresso here, a scoop of gelato there, and maybe a panino and a glass of wine somewhere else. It’s a wonderful way to live, but a difficult thing for an American restaurant to replicate, since these snacks are eaten all over town at bars, cafés, gelaterias, and enotecas. As with tapas or pub crawls, part of the fun of eating this way comes with the fresh view, the new décor, and the knowledge that this is the place to get whichever snack you’ve come for.
Some restaurants are trying, though. Port Chester’s Nessa has a lot in common with New York City’s first Italian-style sandwich bar, ‘Ino, which is reasonable, since Nessa’s co-owner, Marc Tessitore, is an admirer of the restaurant and a friend of ‘Ino’s owner. At both restaurants, you’ll find excellent Italian sandwiches, including bruschetti (grilled bread served with various toppings), tramezzini (meats and cheeses served between two slices of un-grilled, un-toasted bread), and panini (sandwiches that have been toasted in a panini press). While ‘Ino serves only sandwiches, Nessa is a bit less restricted, serving salads, pastas, and mains, too.
Nessa’s menu can be confusing for diners who, excited by the seductive array of sandwiches, may find themselves over-ordering. While two bruschetti make a reasonable starter, the panini and tramezzini are rather large to precede a pasta or main. We found that the panini and tramezzini work better either with a shared pasta (the servings are massive and there’s no charge for sharing) or—along with a bruschetta or two—one of Nessa’s fine salads. Having sampled several bruschetti, we found it hard not to order them again and again. Each one was excellent. We loved the fragrant and creamy white bean, truffle oil, and tomato; and the sweet and salty caramelized onion, agrodolce, and Gorgonzola, too. While the chicken livers on Nessa’s Tuscan bruschetti were whipped smoother than those at our favorite hillside restaurant above Florence, their lush, fatty earthiness was indistinguishable.
Nessa’s panini are equally impressive. Crunchy, hot, and corrugated from the press, they’re the ideal crisp and oozy bite. Our favorite was a soulful porchetta with molten mozzarella and biting broccoli rabe. The crisply seared pancetta with gooey taleggio was delightful, too. The only off note came with the tramezzini. While the prosciutto and shaved Grana Padano filling was tasty, the bread choice was slightly off—sliced too thick, too close to an American Pullman loaf, too soft—whichever (or all three), it was the first disappointment we felt.
Nessa’s salads offer a good alternative to the sandwiches. I especially loved my minted fava bean salad with shaved pecorino Toscana. Our beet salad with frisée was equally good, the sweet beets nicely contrasting salty gorgonzola and bittersweet, crunchy candied walnuts.
One of Nessa’s strongest points is its wine list, composed by sommelier Jean Luc Le Du, formerly of Restaurant Daniel. It’s short, balanced, and with a decidedly Italian point of view. There were many exciting bottles we wanted to try. And this is quite easy to do, because the reasonably-priced wines are available by the quartino, carafe (half bottle), or bottle and are perfect for sharing and sampling.
Pastas are good, though not as stellar as the sandwiches—if only because, for the most part, they’re made with dried pastas topped with well-executed, but standard, sauces. Our spaghetti carbonara was delicious, the pasta al dente, and the creamy bacon sauce oniony, garlicky, and studded with tender green peas. Great—just not as thrilling as the sandwiches. My rigatoni Bolognese was equally good, the sauce well reduced and intensely meaty. The standout, however, was the pillowy ricotta gnocchi, Nessa’s only house-made pasta, which comes lightly dressed with buttery seared shiitakes and crisp veggies. This heavenly gnocchi demonstrates that ex-Bouley, ex-Picholine, ex-Park Avenue Café chef Brady Duhame deserves his own pasta-making station. Thankfully, co-owner Marc Tessitore says it’s in the works.
Nessa offers only four non-pasta mains, so it’s easy to lose these dishes in the mix. A shame, because the fiery chicken cooked under a brick was delicious and came with some of the best mashed potatoes in Westchester, while our lamb chops were perfectly rosy and tender, arriving with an addictive mascarpone polenta.
Desserts (if you can manage) are made in-house and they’re worth saving room for—especially if paired with a glass or three from Nessa’s seductive digestif list. While everything tasted good, our all-out favorite was Nessa’s Nutella panini with bananas, which arrived hot, crunchy, and mouth-wateringly aromatic. Stuffed as we were, just the smell wafting out of the kitchen of warm Nutella on the panini press made us hungry again.
Raves—but here’s the thing: there are two serious problems at Nessa. One is that the attractive long, narrow space—with no tablecloths, carpet, or sound-absorbing fabrics—is seriously loud, so loud that, with only four tables occupied, the hostess has to shout to be heard over the phone; the piped music is far too loud, and the mature, well-heeled crowd that I saw wasn’t enjoying Soundgarden at arena-rock decibels. The second caveat is that, as with many thronged new restaurants (which can become victims of their own success), the wait for food can seem endless on busy nights. We saw diners complaining and getting comp’ed desserts, while we finally got our mains an hour and a half after we arrived.
Nevertheless, the food is so good that we’ll be returning—often, though maybe not on Saturday nights.
325 N Main St, Port Chester
(914) 939-0119; www.nessarestaurant.com
Hours: Sun and Mon, 5 to 10 pm; Wed and Thurs, 5 to 11 pm; Fri and Sat, 5 to 12 pm (plans on expanding to five days soon) Prices: Appetizers: $3-$8; entrées: $17-$32; desserts: $7
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good
Wednesday, January 9, 2008, at 1:07 p.m.:
We ate @ Nessa last Fri. It was terrible. The menu is limited & the food is expensive. They served us something called “a glass & a half” of wine that filled 1/4 of the glass & charged $12.
We were seated near the bar behind these ridiculous curtains separating the bar (a local hangout) from the dining area. It was very noisy & dark & we chose to move.
We chose this dump @ the recommendation of your magazine. I’ll never do that again.
BTW: We eat out @ least 2x a week & have been to many fine restaurants.
Mary Lou Ober