When someone says “tapas,” you think small plates of Spanish delicacies. But in New Haven’s Ninth Square, tapas means small plates of any cuisine.
Nini’s, a ten-year resident of Ninth Square owned by Felix Proto with Stuart London as chef, has hopped on the small-plates bandwagon. Originally Nini’s Bistro, with two seatings of four-course dinners, it lightened its fare two years ago to offer small plates with an international flair. Now you can drop in for a glass of wine and few bites, or sit down to a full-course meal.
East Havener Proto started in the deli business using his family’s Italian recipes. From the time he was 18 until he turned 25, Proto owned three delis: Full Belly in New Haven, and Coppola’s in East Haven and Branford. Stuart London had trained in New York City restaurants, both cooking and managing, and had come to Paolo’s in New Haven to wait tables and manage the restaurant. Proto, a customer of Paolo’s, was looking for a roommate and a new direction for his culinary career. London moved in and the two launched Grand Gourmet in 1993, primarily catering weddings. London mostly consulted – from 1990 to 2000 he was the executive chef for the Old Lyme Inn. Realizing they needed a brick-and-mortar presence, if for no other reason than to offer a place for tastings for brides and grooms, in the spring of 2002 the two started Nini’s Bistro, naming it after Proto’s wife, Anita McCall.
The Bistro was a four-night a week restaurant with two seatings each night. That worked well for about seven years. Then the economy went south and people changed their eating habits. The Bistro was very structured with the two seatings offering a heavy four-course meal: salad, appetizer, entree and dessert. And it was BYOB. But diners started wanting a less expensive, lighter fare, with an affordable wine list. “If you were getting off work you couldn’t get a glass of wine and a couple of appetizers,” Proto says, “we weren’t that kind of place.” In 2010 Nini’s Bistro became Nini’s House of Tapas and became just that kind of place.
Nini’s still does a prix fixe three-course for $28.95, or a four-course for $33.95. The servings are a bit smaller than the old days, but also less expensive. “Two couples will come in, two of them will order a three-course, two of them will order a four-course. So they get 12 items to share, they all order different stuff and table share, then they get two desserts and they split the desserts,” Proto says. “It will fill you up,” says London.
“If you want to come into our place with ten people for a birthday party, everyone does a four-course meal, and you know that you can put $50 with tax and tip on the table and they walk out,” Proto says. “It’s very easy to do big parties. The food is so varied, it’s an international menu, everything from osso bucco to sushi.”
“Food without borders,” London calls it. In the restaurant business for almost 40 years, London grew up in New York and of course was exposed to many cuisines. On the other hand, Proto “only ate pasta and meatballs, all the basic Italian food. With the first menu [London] showed me I said ‘What are we going to do with this? None of my friends are going to come here!’ and Stuart said ‘Good, I don’t want any of your friends coming here.” They laugh.
London no longer changes the entire menu every two weeks, as he did at the Bistro. Instead, he changes the specials board each week, continuing to offer a large range and taking advantage of local and seasonal items.
The two continue to cater through Grand Gourmet, as well as their mobile, brick-oven pizza truck called Red Wagon Pizza. Fortunately, they continue their retail dining experience in the intimate, inviting space tucked into Ninth Square.
Restaurant Website: http://ninishot.com/
• The Detes: 40 Orange St., New Haven. 203-562-6464. Open Tuesday – Sunday 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
• Price Range: $6.95 – 14.95
• Style of Food: “Food without borders,” says owner Felix Proto.
• Favorite dishes: Paella, osso bucco, Nini’s crabcake, truffle fries, cannoli nachos.
• Wine offerings: Change constantly
• Catering: Yes, through Grand Gourmet, and mobile, brick-oven pizza through Red Wagon Pizza http://redwagonpizza.com/
• Vegetarian/Gluten Free available: yes
• Outdoor seating: no