M, W, Th, F (12PM-2PM, 5PM-10PM), Sa-Su (4PM-9:30PM). Closed Tuesdays.
(609) 890-9851 Google Maps
Gravitas: Decor: Cost: Proximity:
Imagine if there were an Italian restaurant, perhaps in Trenton’s old Chambersburg neighborhood, and it were frozen in time for 30 years. There’d still be the same linoleum on the floor, the same wood paneling and fading wallpaper, the same staff, the same food, the same pictures on the wall, and the same people patronizing it. Well, fortunately, you don’t have to imagine. Because there is Chick and Nello’s, just a short drive away from Trenton.
In fact, Chick and Nello’s goes back even further. The restaurant is slightly over 75 years old, and besides the recent addition of a credit-card-processing machine, we’d wager they haven’t changed much. The restaurant was founded in 1939 by Nello Rosati and Chick Peroni. It is located in a fabulous house just off of Kuser Road (in Hamilton, but near the Trenton border), and word has it used to be a mafia hang-out back in the day. It might still be, for all we know–most of the patrons here looked like they’d come out of central casting. It’s got a certain old-style charm that is undeniable, from the moment you sit down behind the linen table cloth you feel like you’re experiencing something deeply authentic.
The food is reminiscent of a great old Italian opera–it’s classic, never-changing, and simply divine. There is no menu, and so if you are new you’re going to have to listen to your waiter recite all of your options before you decide. Sit back and relax, because it’ll take about five minutes. In addition to the bread and spicy roasted peppers that start every meal, you’re encouraged to order four courses:
- A salad. They have a romaine or arugula based salad, but also serve several vegetables as “salad,” such as broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or asparagus (these change seasonally). You can add cheese (mozzarella or provolone) to any of these.
- A pasta course. There are three types of pasta, and a variety of sauces (marinara, meat sauce, red sauce with clams, alfredo, and several others with sausage, olive oil, and other delights). You can order your pasta as a full plate (to share) or a half plate (which is still more than one person will need).
- A main course. You can get a variety of charcoal grilled meats, roast chicken, shrimp, veal or eggplant parmesan, and other items. These main courses rotate regularly and there seems to be a weekly schedule, though it’s hard to figure out without a menu. There are several a la carte sides (broccoli rabe, broccoli, spinach) that can accompany these.
- A dessert. Honestly you won’t have room, but they serve Arctic Ice Cream, tiramisu, tartufo, and other Italian classics.
On our most recent visit, we devoured asparagus with mozzarella (excellent and perfectly al dente), broccoli salad (honestly I can’t figure out how they put that much flavor into a plate of broccoli), pastas with clam sauce (succulent and fresh) and marinara (flavorful), and eggplant parmesan (probably the best I’ve ever had), along with a side of broccoli rabe (perfectly piquant). The eggplant parmesan was silky and voluptuous, with an opulent sauce. It was a revelation. Across the board, the quality of the cooking was remarkable, and the food toothsome and delectable.
The steaks are famous. Millman, who is an omnivore, reports that the T-bone is particularly wonderful. The portion is obscene for a single person, but fortunately, Chick and Nello’s makes it easy to share. It’s plenty for two people, and the aged, marinated, grilled beef is outstanding. Someone should feel relaxed enough to gnaw the t-bone itself: an amazing amount of meat can be recovered that is inaccessible to knife and fork.
Come here for the food, but it’s the environment that really makes this a transcendent experience. The dining room itself is positively mouthwatering, and everything contributes to the effect: the appetizing descriptions, the divine drinks (yes, they have a full bar), and the luscious smells that waft out of the kitchen. It’s a perfect combination of surroundings and sustenance.
Reservations are strongly encouraged, particularly on the weekends and Friday nights. Service is professional but leisurely, so once the tables are full you can expect a long wait to get in. Prices are high–the two of us ordered mostly vegetarian and split an entree (and only had one drink each) and still ended up with an $85 bill. It’d be easy to drop much much more, particularly since you can’t see the prices. Vegetarians should call ahead to make sure there is a vegetarian entree available that night.
The menu seems to shift regularly on some schedule that we can’t quite discern. We understand that if you’re a regular, of course, your food will just appear when you arrive–no need to order. For the rest of us, sit back and listen to the menu. And try to remember what life used to be like.