Changing Spaces: Keene Trattoria moves with the times.Love happens. Fireworks especially seem to happen for students who travel abroad. So began the story of Nicola's Trattoria in Keene - how an Italian native came to settle in the Monadnock Region.In 1983 Cheryl met Nicola Bencivenga in his native southern Italy, when he joined her art history troupe as a translator. Smitten, she was not able to relocate to Italy, so Nicola did the noble thing and came to the Monadnock region to join her. After working as a chef for others, they decided to open their own restaurant in 1997 just off of Keene's iconic Market Square.Nicola's Trattoria has been a fixture in Keene for almost 15 years. Nicola, a self-taught chef, has impressed the region with his fine Italian cuisine inspired by coastal Italy- fresh seafood and herbs with a light touch. Mean while Cheryl has performed as hostess, business manager and restaurant designer. In 2002 they expanded the restaurant with a lounge/bar area with separate entrance and menu.An opportunity to relocate to new quarters in Railroad Square arose and the couple decided to move and upgrade the restaurant at the same time.The Monadnock Economic Development Council had built three new brick buildings including the space for a new Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, a 55-and-over residence and an office building with apartments on the upper floors. Nicola and Cheryl leased a ground floor space with a western exposure in the office building. This location is larger than their previous one with much of the square footage being given over to the bar area. A new pizza oven was added along with new kitchen equipment.Upon entering the new restaurant, one gets a sense of déjà vu. The dining area is divided on an angle similar to the former Market Square location. The designer was the same, of course. Cheryl, with her own interior design consulting business, has given the space a very comfortable feel with the warm yellow walls and nice architectural details.A wall of windows on the west side will display great sunset views in the summer and there are plans to offer outdoor dining.The bar area comes to life with a great use of black and white. Striped upholstery and a checkerboard floor are accented with warm red, floral fabrics. The space is at the same time inviting and sophisticated. Votive candles set in glass add a bit of sparkle to the room. Tiny lights twinkle in the windows. A piano is used on Friday and Saturday nights for a jazz group.The menu is much the same as before, offering Italian classics such as bruschetta, veal saltimbocco, cioppino, braised meats and more, all listed with their proper Italian names. Daily specials have included Milanese risotto with pan-seared chicken apple sausage, spinach and leek stuffed quail, pan-seared snapper, broccoli rabe bisque and cornmeal encrusted rainbow trout with salmon confit. A separate bar menu offers 12-inch pizzas, most blanco, with no red sauce, plus a daily gnocchi and light tastes of dinner.Fresh foccacia bread is made daily along with a few classic desserts including tiramisu, all made by the Bencivenga's daughter, Valentina. Their son Shalam, a graphic designer, takes care of menu design and their Facebook posts, rounding out this family operation.The family name Bencivenga loosely translated means "welcome" in Italian, a fitting moniker for a family that has created such a hospitable space for the Keene area. NHClick here for Chef Nicola's Pappardelle Primavera recipe.
This article appears in the April 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine