by Bob Capazzo
There’s a small gem of a restaurant in Port Chester. It’s called nessa (lowercase n), and it’s owned by two young brothers named Marc and Adam Tessitore (with some help from their father Peter). It serves Italian dishes and it’s a hybrid of an enoteca, where wine is the focus, and a trattoria, where food is the star. It has the chic feel of being deliberately downplayed in the casual fashion of today.
Walls are painted in Ralph Lauren’s favorite colors of mustard, chocolate and wine. Gauzy curtains separating the bar from the main dining area hint of dreamland, especially on nights when the big-band sound of Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” plays in the background. Yet it has a welcomed coziness about it, too.
There’s always a palpable vibe in the dining room — tables of young moms free for one night, families with huge bowls of pasta in front of them, couples engaged in tête-à-têtes, men relaxing after a day at the office. People feel good here, in large part due to the friendliness of the Tessitores (Peter is a character to meet and enjoy swapping tales with — he does the flower arrangements you see placed around the room). Your friends will tell their friends that they have found this secret place, but by now everyone knows about nessa. That’s because word of mouth has spread so quickly.
Nessa sits across from the police headquarters on North Main Street, diagonally opposite the condo-converted Life Savers building. If you’re driving from Greenwich from the Post Road, look for the small brown building with nessa’s amber-colored lights on the left — the restaurant is dinner only — just before the railroad overpass that skitters through this ethnically diverse community.
There are amber lights inside as well, casting soft shadows on the bare tables set with the heavy white dinnerware that has become ubiquitous in virtually every restaurant you frequent nowadays. Hang your coat on the hooks between the wall sconces and, if you’re there for a short while, you might want to take a seat at the polished wooden bar showcasing Italian wines (most nights, there are also a few tantalizing bottles on the table at the entrance).
Nessa’s menu is made for a short stint or for a leisurely supper. It’s divided into familiar enoteca categories like bruschette (slices of Italian bread topped with tempting variations of Italian antipasti), tramezzini (cafélike sandwiches of crustless bread and simple fillings like tuna or mozzarella and tomato) and panini (grilled sandwiches that are more substantial like sausage and peppers). Full dinner selections offer salads and other first courses (insalate and primi piatti) and entrées (secondi piatti). If you want a quick bite, our suggestion is to order one of the tramezzini or panini and a quartino of wine, about one and a half glasses, either at the bar or at one of the tables.
At dinner, you have got to try several bruschette because each one is a winner. Basil pesto; white bean with truffle oil; pepperonata; prosciutto with to-die-for creamy, sweet ricotta and inebriated figs; caramelized onions with whipped, spiced Gorgonzola drizzled with a balsamic reduction; forbidden brie made just a trifle less sinful by a tablespoon of chopped artichokes — all of them so seductive we couldn’t choose only one or two, so on several visits, we ordered, well, all of them. If you have ordered the whole nine yards for the table, choose yours fast once the waiter brings the platter, because each portion is just a one-bite deal and you won’t want to divide yours.
The opposite is true of both the first course offerings and the main courses, which are huge. Salads are meals in themselves. If the waiter forgets to bring the bread basket, ask for it, because the bread is wonderful to enjoy with salad. (On one visit, we had slices of this excellent bread to dunk into beautiful Italian olive oil, but on a subsequent evening, the waiter forgot the bread — and the olives — but we were already into the bruschette and didn’t realize what we had missed. Then again, how many carbs can one blissfully indulge in without guilt? Grilled octopus came tossed with frisée, tiny potatoes, black olives, fennel, candied lemon peel and one lone caperberry shot through with attitude. We loved the dish.
Beef carpaccio made a grand entrance with thin panini-grilled, oil-brushed slices of Italian bread, a smattering of pignoli nuts and a truffle emulsion doing cartwheels on the rare beef. Beautiful. Chunks of speecy-spicy sausage and really hot peppers challenged the unwariest among us, but the accompanying creamy mascarpone polenta mitigated the fireworks in the mouth — somewhat. We appreciated the clever taste combination and we understood from a waiter that it’s Peter’s favorite dish. Nice-size crab cakes were another good choice as was a dish where candied walnuts added sweet crunch to a yellow and red beet salad in which a horseradish-crème fraîche dressing and chunks of Gorgonzola had a field day. It was a fiesta of Italian and American concepts, expertly crafted by chef Alberto Guzman and his second-in-command Robert Zalewski.
Main courses could feed a family. Rigatoni (more an occhi di lupo pasta) alla bolognese with some fabulous sweet ricotta; fusilli with broccoli rabe, tomatoes and again that spicy sausage; linguine with a bevy of clams; even the meaty veal osso buco conquering its luscious, earthy porcini risotto are huge portions. The menu may be short, but it sure is sassy. Expect to take a meal or two home.
Fish was more polite, choosing to play less bountiful roles but by no means demure: firm-flesh monkfish was topped with a racy puttanesca sauce, and salmon came dressed for the evening in a classic Italian setting of escarole and cannellini beans. Both were pitch-perfect. Chicken played to comfort food: Cooked in a pan under a foil-wrapped brick to lock in juices and miraculously crisp the skin, it was served with spinach and mashed potatoes.
The wine list, drawn from small Italian vineyards, is quite a select voyage. You’ll recognize nomenclature like Gavi di Gavi, Greco di Tufo, Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Gheppio, Barolo, Boglietti, Amarone and Brunello di Montalcino. Of course, there’s Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir, Chianti and Merlot. Sometimes the cellar is out of a particular wine, and sometimes there are specials for the evening (as with the food). The fun in the game is that nessa gives you a choice of size: quartino (a glass and a half, some as low as $10), half a carafe or a full bottle. If everyone in the group chooses a different wine in a quartino (and we did that justice!), you could have a mini wine tasting along with dinner because there’s always some left in the carafes to share.
What you don’t share is the bread pudding. This is the best bread pudding we can remember, drunk with apricots, raisins and figs, creamed with white chocolate, showered with pistachios and partnered with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. Our second favorite dessert was a very unusual chocolate mousse layered with a red wine cream. Cut through the welcomed texture of crushed amaretti to the bottom of the glass to get a full enjoyment all on one spoon. But if a union of chocolate and wine is unappealing to you, panna cotta or cheesecake may please you more.
If you think the noise level is high when you enter nessa, ask to be seated in the romantic lounge with its bistrolike metal tables, a wall-to-wall mirror and huge paintings by Joseph Jockino. Nessa is already a year old and is leaving a strong mark on the restaurant-heavy scene in Port Chester.