Chef Nick Strawhecker is through and through an Italian chef. Nick is the Owner/Chef of Dante Ristorante Pizzeria in Omaha, NE. They are producing authentic Italian cuisine using locally sourced ingredients and producing world class meals in America’s heartland. We do not typically review restaurants on our hunting blog, but Nick’s story of focusing on farm to table ingredients as well as his new passion for hunting intrigued me. This evening, we had the opportunity for a night out and we jumped at the chance to eat one of his meals.
The story of Nick Stawhecker caught my attention when the Omaha World-Herald did a feature article on him called Duck Blind Goes Gourmet: Hunters served 3-course meal when chef does on-site cooking for a day. Several people cut out the article that day and either brought me the paper or sent me a link. Our family and friends here in Lincoln know that I love to cook, eat and especially hunt so they all thought this was right up my alley. Just a few months later I saw another quick article about Dante featuring the news that the restaurant’s own sommelier, Adam Weber, now holds the title of Italian Wine Professional (IWP). A chef who hunts, farm to table cuisine, a focus on Italian wine…where do I sign up? I secured a reservation on Opentable (which I highly recommend) and tonight Marjorie and I got a rare night with just the two of us and a simply amazing dinner.
We arrived about 6:45 and Dante’s was crowded but we were seated immediately which is the value of getting that reservation in advance. The restaurant is clean, the staff are gracious and personable and we felt like we were quickly a part of the family. Adam Weber greeted us soon after and helped us choose a wine for our evening. We prefer great bold wines and Adam helped us to select a 2014 Tenuta Curezza “Prine”. Marjorie and I both had a glass and it was the perfect, rich bold flavor we enjoy. Just the kind of wine to warm our mouths and prepare us for the meal ahead.
We took our time after our server explained the menu options and chose a selection of dishes to get our feet wet in the Dante experience. We started with 3 PEI oysters and a pot of mussels and clams. Chef Nick brings in the seafood by air to Omaha within 24 hours of it hitting the market so it is fresh and available to his customers. The oysters were excellent but the clams and mussels were exceptional. The dish contains small clams and average size mussels in a tomato, chili, garlic and guanciale sauce along with two large wedges of Italian bread. Each element seemed to play off the other in this dish. I was hoping for a little bit of spice in the dish and I was not disappointed. Rather than being overwhelming, the chili in the sauce warmed the dish up and brought out the flavors of the tomato, garlic and shellfish. The guanciale soaked in that sauce was heavenly Italian bacon goodness.
We soaked the bread in the sauce, ate every last drop of mussels and clams and wiped the plates clean with our bread. Our server suggested we save the sauce to dip our pizza into later in the meal and we loved that idea.
Next up came the wood-oven roasted scallops and a side dish of wood-roasted brussel sprouts with guanciale. This was the second dish using this amazing piece of pork jowl. The sprouts and the guanciale mixed perfectly with the smoky flavor of the wood oven. Three large scallops rested atop a beet puree with artichoke and greens. It was exceptional. This is the second time an Omaha chef has surprised me with some kind of beet puree. The entire plate came together extremely well.
Our last choice was a Cortona pizza. You cannot visit a restaurant named Dante Ristorante Pizzeria and not order some kind of pizza. The Cortona has soppressata, olive, chili, wood-roasted mushroom, garlic, farm egg and mozzarella. It was more than we could finish, but I was happy to have a really large slice. The farm egg mixed perfectly with the mushroom goodness of this pizza. It was the perfect slice to end a great evening.
I had to work hard to find something I did not like and if you know me, I love a great Coke. When I was told they served Caleb’s Kola, a natural alternative to soda, I gave it the college try. I wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t do it. Farm to Table had crossed the line.
Even though the restaurant was hopping busy on a Friday night, Chef Nick took a few minutes off to speak with us. We exchanged notes about duck hunting for a quick minute and I promised to get up north to join him on one of his fancy Pheasant Bonanza gourmet duck hunts with a 3 course meal in the blind. In exchange, he promised to come down and chase a gobbler this spring with me. I’ll supply the Krispy Kremes and the coffee and the action will be non-stop.
Notes from the Better Half (Marjorie): as the wife of an avid hunter and a sometime hunter myself, I appreciate food taken from its natural habitat. Whether it’s game meat I harvested and butchered myself or naturally raised produce from small, local farms, I appreciate quality food produced and prepared by people who love food as much as I do. I found Dante’s to be a place where that kind of appreciation is in abundance.
The list of local farms that supply Dante’s Ristorante Pizzeria is proudly displayed on the back of their menu. I found this a great way to share the good news of local products with customers who actively search out new sources of food for their own kitchens. The wine list, in an opposite but just as enticing manner, showcases wines from various regions of Italy. A little bit of geography and land use is infused in the descriptions of each region, which I like. Having visited Italy on numerous occasions, I enjoyed reading about the regions I have visited and finding myself wanting to try new wines to match my memories of those areas.
As I ate my meal, I found myself strolling further down memory lane. The mussels and clams were reminiscent of a dish I enjoyed much closer to Italy, at the base of the Alps about 10 years ago. While I always like dipping bread into the remaining sauce, Chef Nick’s sauce was the best I’ve had. I couldn’t tell what herb he used, but I swear it was mint. I should have asked.
As well, Dante’s Pizzeria claims to serve pizza in the Napoletana style. This is truly the only way I love a pizza. The pizza is thin, the sauce is thin, the toppings are selected purposefully and are never over-used, and the crust is its own entity. It helps draw out an already wonderful meal, lingering over the last of your glass of wine.
What a nice evening. Rare in the fact that my husband and I actually had time to ourselves and rare in the fact that Chef Nick and his sommelier Adam know what a meal ought to be.