When it comes to food, as is true in life, less is always more.
At Nick & Toni’s, a standard-setting staple in the South Fork’s dining world, that utterance has clearly served the Italian-style eatery well since opening its doors in the late 1980s. Earlier this month, the culinary institution situated on North Main Street in East Hampton celebrated its 35th anniversary, no small feat considering the fickle nature of the fast-paced, and sometimes ruthless, restaurant world.
“The goal in the very beginning was to present authentic food from a region of Italy my husband and I went to that we felt wasn’t being represented here on the East End,” says founding partner and Wainscott resident Toni Ross. It was in Italy that the pair met and fell in love, sharing a mutual fascination with the locavore practices of the country’s inhabitants. By the way, in case you didn’t know, she’s the “Toni” in the latter part of the restaurant’s namesake, while the former came from her late husband, Jeff “Nick” Salaway, whose palpable enthusiasm to eat locally sourced ingredients quickly became the ethos of the restaurant. Their inaugural menu, peppered with items like beet ravioli in a poppy seed sauce, roasted chicken with Yukon gold potatoes and house-cured pancetta, the now menu mainstays crispy-fried zucchini chips and home-made biscotti with Vin Santo, and a delightfully balanced, perfectly dressed Caesar salad, did just that. “The food was clean and simple, but direct and comforting,” she says.
And it still is.
After Ross and her husband had nearly immediate success in bringing refreshingly simple, yet oh-so-tasty fare to the mouths of the Hamptons masses, managing partner Mark Smith, director of operations Christy Cober, and longtime executive chef Joe Realmuto, have helped to continue Ross and Salaway’s vision. In the process, they’ve undoubtedly sealed a permanent place as a favorite dining spot among Hamptons locals and visitors.
Today, although the original building that houses the beloved resto was expanded and updated and their nightly guest list has grown to include some of the biggest celebrity names around, “we try to stay current and keep the food relevant,” says Smith, who joined the team in the mid-90s. Smith also serves as the CEO of Honest Man Hospitality, a restaurant group that also includes Rowdy Hall, Coche Comedor, Townline BBQ and La Fondita.
Upon entering the farmhouse-style restaurant there’s a subtle, pleasantly constant buzz around the room. A long, dark crocodile is perched atop the bustling, balmy lit bar. Elegant pina lanterns offering just enough light brighten dark wooden tabletops set around the perimeter of the dining room. Soft music beams off the beachy, wooden walls. In the back right corner a wood-fire oven blazes beneath a brightly colored mosaic, originally built by local artist Eric Fischl, depicting a large dog and a woman on the beach. The space is fresh, it’s clean, and it’s lovely.
Known for its year-round offerings of elegantly elevated northern Italian cuisine, the concise menu at Nick & Toni’s certainly packs a proverbial punch, priding itself on being one of the premier South Fork restaurants to utilize locally sourced ingredients throughout nearly each and every dish on the menu.
Along with their three and half decade old menu items, guests can enjoy refined antipasti options ranging from Montauk Yellowfin tuna crudo to wood-fired octopus arranged over a heaping spoonful of Sicilian purple potato salad. Green salads crafted with lettuces and veggies from the likes of Balsam Farms and Quail Hill keep first course options luxuriously light. If you’re in the mood for pasta, their mainstay penne alla Vecchia Bettola is a crowd pleaser, as is the pillowy house-made ricotta cavatelli with sausage ragu and sweet peas. Main courses include wood-fired beef, pork and market fish dishes along with a whole roasted fish, seared sea scallops. Fairytale eggplant grown in their on-premises garden and served over a white bean puree with chicory offers a vegetarian dinner option. For dessert, blueberry galette, chocolate torte, and strawberry sherbert profiteroles lead the way, while their notoriously delectable biscotti, served with a healthy shot of vin santo, and the amply stocked artisanal cheese board offer a more “snacky” little-after-dinner something.
In a way, Nick & Toni’s is the OG farm-to-table restaurant, long before it was the cool thing to be. Since the beginning, they’ve kept a tightknit relationship with local farmers, fisherman, and purveyors keeping that now ubiquitous “localism” vibe current and strong. The effort was there from the beginning. Originally spearheaded by Salaway in the early 90’s, community farming trailblazer Scott Chaskey was called upon to erect an on-site, half-acre organic garden bordering the edge of the parking lot. Over a decade ago, Realmuto added on another quarter acre.
“The garden’s been through a gradual morphing over the years,” Smith says, initially offering small, but important finishing elements, like microgreens and fresh herbs, to eventually featuring asparagus and heirloom tomatoes.
That morphing has helped in keeping the dishes offered effectively simple and seasonal, with most plates often containing a mere three to four ingredients.
“The garden has become an integral part of what we’re trying to do here,” Ross says. “I mean, you wouldn’t have tomatoes in February.” At Nick & Toni’s, you’re practically guaranteed to have a meal that’s a celebration of “less is more.” You’ll be glad you did.
Nick & Toni’s is located at 136 North Main Street in East Hampton. Call 631-324-3550.