Where Madrid meets Napoli
by Connie Adams
Spain and Italy have a long and sometimes complicated relationship. Sometimes they get along, sometimes not so much. If you want to enjoy the best of both without the complications, it’s time you head to tidbit on Capitol Hill, owned by Nicola Longo and John van Deinse.
Nic grew up in Naples, Italy, where food, family and culture are extremely important. He and his brother watched the adults cook and learned to cook themselves. Food was not only cooked and eaten; it was discussed "all the time." In 1998, Nic moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. He already had his masters in civil engineering and, once here, got a double masters—urban design and planning and transportation engineering. He graduated in 2000 and began, and continues, work as a transportation engineer. "I deal with traffic problems," he explains. No shortage of work in Seattle.
John was raised in Eugene, Oregon, and also spent time in the kitchen watching his mother and grandmother cook. "I did the grunt work, but paid attention to what they did," he recalls. Attending the University of Oregon, he discovered the beauty of the study abroad program, spending a total of two years in Germany and Spain. It was Spain that captured his heart. "I lived with a family and watched the mother cook every day. She wouldn’t let me help, but I still learned a lot." Returning to Eugene, he worked at a pizza restaurant and was in charge of HR as they grew from one location to five. He moved to Seattle and took a job at Palomino, staying for 4-1/2 years. A year into it, he took a second job, this one at Bing’s in Madison Park. He stayed for seven years, becoming a manager. "I learned about both the corporate and small business worlds," he says. He returned to school and got his certificate in HR management.
In 2002, John and Nic met at a party; their love for Italy and Spain created a bond. Around 2006, they started talking about opening their own restaurant. It had to reflect their casual style, be a friendly neighborhood spot and showcase Italian and Spanish comfort food. They both wanted something small and personal. "We wanted a place where we could control the feel: to say hello and goodbye and talk with people," explains John. That has come true. tidbit has many regulars, both from the neighborhood and beyond, who come for both food and conversation. The majority of pictures on the wall are from trips Nic and John have taken. All have stories behind them and have sparked many a discussion.
They looked at several locations near the downtown core. "We really liked the layout of this spot," says Nic. "It felt right for our concept, had outdoor seating and shares a parking lot in back. We did quite a bit of cosmetic work, wanting something more vibrant, less classic. We took out heavy wood and added glass. Our tidbit logo is on glass and whether you look at it from the front or back, you can read it. We like the fact that this is an old building. It fits for a European bistro and has more charm." The TV over the bar shows Italian and Spanish programming. "We know some people don’t like TV in a restaurant, but it’s our connection to Italy and Spain," says Nic. John adds, "We’re not stuffy and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so it fits our style."
They used their experiences and backgrounds to create a large tapas menu and smaller large plate menu. "Italy was under Spanish rule for quite awhile and there is a cultural cross-over," explains Nic. "But they both have their own dishes. The food in Naples actually has more in common with Spanish food than with Northern Italian cuisine. We don’t do fusion—our dishes are either Italian or Spanish."
Neither Nic nor John are professional chefs. They created the menu and had a consultant chef do the fine-tuning. They have since hired a full-time chef. "We’re very picky on how things are done in the kitchen," explains Nic. "We have certain standards and our chef follows those. He’s doing a great job." The menu changes seasonally, but in order to keep things fresh for the regulars, they offer daily specials—soup (made to order), one tapa, chicken, risotto and gelato. "We create the seasonal menus ourselves," says John. "On special dinners, we work with the chef. The daily specials are created by the chef."
Choice is key to them. A special vegan menu joins the main menu which is coded to indicate vegetarian and gluten-free items. Dishes range from grilled breads to cheeses to seafood to lamb and beef. A special kids menu is colorfully-filled with Italian cartoon characters. Over 20 wines are offered by the glass and there are half bottles as well as a good-sized list of full bottles from around the world. They currently have 39 different grappas and an ever-changing grappa flight. A cello flight is also available: Limoncello is probably the most familiar here, but the walnut/hazelnut Nocello is the oldest and most familiar in Italy.
As first-time restaurant owners, they’ve learned a lot. "Running the floor is pretty easy for me," says John. "The lessons have come on the behind-the-scenes stuff." Nic didn’t really know what to expect. "There’s more work than I realized. And I’m an engineer. I want everything perfect. But that’s part of the charm; each table may not line up. I’ve had to learn to compromise." As they’ve settled in, they’ve had time to do something else they want—get greener. They’ve joined the Green Restaurant Association which helps owners recycle, use products better for the planet, etc. "I’m from Eugene," laughs John. "I grew up composting."
Owning a restaurant doesn’t always go according to plan. But Nic and John have managed to create the small, personal spot they wanted where they meet and get to know their customers while offering the food and drink they love. How very European.