Peter Nestico, son of the late Julie Nestico, one of the most storied restaurant owners in Syracuse, still innovating, serving delicious modern Italian and American fare
By Margaret McCormick
By Peter Nestico’s count, there are more than 100 places to get something to eat between Northern Lights Plaza near Mattydale and Driver’s Village, about a half-mile north of his restaurant on Main Street (Route 11) in North Syracuse. There’s everything from fast food to convenience stores to sandwich shops to pizza parlors to bakeries to full-service restaurants like his.
So, a place needs to stand out in the crowd.
Nestico’s does this several ways.
For starters, there’s a towering digital sign announcing the presence of the restaurant in the busy business district and spelling out food and drink specials. And there’s a big, bold, eye-catching mural by local artist Jacqueline Colello on one side of the building. That’s a new addition and it’s getting a lot of attention.
Inside, beyond the lively bar, are a couple of comfortable dining rooms lined with booths and accented with pops of bright color on the walls. The vibe is friendly and welcoming, with the smell of Italian food wafting from the kitchen.
Greeting diners for lunch and dinner is Peter Nestico, 70. He opened the restaurant with his father in 2000 and is proud of its longevity, its loyal base of repeat customers, its dedicated staff of industry veterans (the restaurant has had just four chefs in 23 years) and its always-evolving menus and wine list.
The restaurant’s fans include Terry Manning, of Bridgeport, who dines there every couple of months with his wife, Jackie.
“Nestico’s is one of the best local, reasonably priced restaurants in Central New York,’’ Manning says. “Always great food, solid service in a family friendly setting. It’s one of our favorites.’’
Nestico was born in Syracuse, spent his early years in Solvay and later moved to the northern suburbs, graduating from Cicero High School. He was literally born into the restaurant business: His father, Julie, who died in 2008, owned and operated a long list of Syracuse-area restaurants, including The Trivet House, Guvnor’s Grill, Regency Grill and Julie’s Place. Nestico remembers working at The Trivet House, which was on Seventh North Street, as a teenager.
He didn’t plan to make a career of restaurants, initially, and instead studied foreign service at Georgetown University. He wanted to travel and see the country and needed a job when he got to California. “I was a wandering soul, but I could always get a job in the restaurant business,’’ Nestico recalls. He took a position with TGI Fridays and worked for the company for many years, opening new restaurants in California, Arizona and Oregon. He later moved to Boston and worked at independent restaurants and briefly for the Legal Sea Foods restaurant group.
The corporate world taught him valuable lessons about business strategy, kitchen management, restaurant costs, cleanliness, efficiency and organization.
“It was a great education, better than culinary school,’’ Nestico says. “I learned I like running restaurants.’’
He came home for his mother’s 70th birthday, he recalls, and has been here ever since. He and his father purchased the former Angelo’s Cornucopia restaurant at 412 N. Main St. in North Syracuse. They remodeled the place, adding a fireplace, and reopened it as Nestico’s in 2000.
Nestico describes it as more “old-school Italian’’ than it is now, with its combination of more modern Italian and American fare.
In the years after his father died, Nestico began making incremental changes over time: an updated bar with high-top tables, fresh landscaping, outdoor seating, the big digital sign and most recently Colello’s vibrant mural, which she has said is intended to convey the restaurant owner’s sense of adventure. It’s reminiscent of Venice, with a canal running through it, and shows a couple riding off on a Vespa. The artist even incorporated the restaurant’s exhaust fans into bridge towers.
A typical day for Nestico begins in the late morning. He checks in with the kitchen, assigns prep and work tasks, works on payroll and might step in to train a new dishwasher. He stays through lunch, leaves for a couple hours in the afternoon and returns for dinner service. He delivers food, busses tables, chats with guests and washes dishes. On a recent Tuesday, he sat down with two longtime customers who come in for lunch a couple times a week.
“I oversee more than anything,’’ Nestico explains. “We’re well organized after 23 years. I’m the face of the place.’’
Nestico creates new menus in collaboration with his kitchen team, including daily food and drink specials, curates the wine list and selects the art on the walls. He can jump on the line if needed but leaves the cooking to those who do it best. “A chef is an artist. I’m kind of a mix,’’ he says. “My creativity comes through in the menus and the feel of the place.’’
His father may be gone but he’s not forgotten. “I think my dad just had an eye for quality that transferred hopefully to me,’’ Nestico says. “He was an innovator. He wasn’t afraid to try new things. He wasn’t afraid to steal an idea and expand upon it.’’
Nestico is inspired by others, too. He has adapted the restaurant’s traditional lasagna, for example, to serve it in the style of Don Angie, a popular New York City restaurant. The lasagna is arranged in pinwheels in a casserole, then baked and piped with ricotta cheese. The menu also features an homage to Aunt Josie’s, a landmark Italian American restaurant in Syracuse that closed in 2012. If you remember Aunt Josie’s you remember its signature dish: cavatelli pasta tossed with broccoli, mushrooms, butter, olive oil and garlic.
“We keep up with the times, we don’t dwell in the past,’’ Nestico says. “People don’t like change, so you have to do it creatively.’’
For more information on Nestico’s visit www.nesticos.com and look for the restaurant on Facebook and Instagram.
Margaret McCormick is a food writer and food blogger in Syracuse.