For as long as he can remember, Nick Karas wanted to grow up to be a chef and to take over his mother's restaurant, Nap's Cucina Mia, in Indiana, Pa.
The restaurant was originally Nap Patti's bar, opened by Napolean and Josephine Patti, Mr. Karas' maternal grandparents, in 1949. As the decades passed, the bar remained. Then their daughter, Mary Jo Karas, decided to turn the bar into a restaurant. In 1992, she remodeled and redesigned the space and reopened as Nap's Cucina Mia. At the time, Nick was in third grade, and it clearly didn't take long for him to catch the restaurant bug as well.
"My girlfriend's mother was my sixth-grade teacher," said Mr. Karas, "and she recently found a paper I'd written in sixth grade that said I wanted to be a chef when I grew up."
At his parents' insistence, Mr. Karas went to college and earned a degree in geography. He recalls, however, that he spent a lot of his time sitting in the back of a class, searching the Internet for culinary programs abroad.
"I'd been back and forth to Italy a handful of times when I was young and I lived there for four months when I was 15," he said, experiences that made him determined to work in a restaurant or study at a culinary school in Italy. Eventually, those searches lead him to Apicius, a culinary school in Florence, Italy, that offered a master's program in Italian cuisine.
Things have changed over the years at Nap's Cucina Mia. Mr. Karas is now the chef, for one, but the restaurant looks much the same as it did when his mother ran the kitchen. The walls are sponge-painted a cheery yellow. Old family pictures hang on the wall and wines by the glass and a small selection of beers, including Italian favorites such as Peroni, are displayed on one corner of the bar. But the most distinctive aspect of the design is the open kitchen, situated just beyond the bar.
"I've never seen a kitchen as open as ours," said Mr. Karas. "To really just put it right behind the bar in the middle of the restaurant, I think [my mom] was a few years ahead of her time."
He has been careful to preserve his family's legacy, while still putting his own spin on Nap's. The day-to-day menu is the same one that Mrs. Karas designed so many years ago, a carefully edited set of Italian and Italian-American pasta dishes.
Josephine's platter, a selection of seasonal vegetable appetizers (small, $8.95; large, $12.95), is a lovely way to begin a meal. In early spring, a large platter consisted of hearty servings of house-marinated mushrooms, wedges of carrot, a garlicky red and green pepper salad and perfectly cooked earthy brown lentils.
Mr. Karas describes his specials as a mix of "modern progressive," "classic Italian," and "Italian-American." On that particular evening, they included crab cakes (a favorite of Indiana-based coffee roaster T.J. Fairchild), pasta in honor of the feast of St. Joseph and a pork chop with polenta, caramelized onions and peppers.
He is clearly proud of the local fame of his seafood specials and Tuesday pizza night, but he's equally proud of the restaurant's history.
"I will never take spaghetti and meatballs off the menu, because it's important not to lose touch with who I am," he explained.
There are many tempting options on the regular menu, such as gnocchi with Nonna Patti's traditional red sauce ($11) and shrimp scampi ($17.95), but when it came time to order, the specials won out.
St. Joseph's Day sauce was a Sicilian tomato sauce with a base of fennel and sardines and garnished with toasted bread crumbs. Intensely flavorful, it perfectly coated every strand of tender, fresh linguine (all of Nap's pastas are made in house). In this case, the bread crumbs are intended to symbolize the sawdust that would have covered Joseph's floor, but they are also a traditional pasta garnish in Sicily, adding a wonderful texture to the soft pasta and capturing the Italian talent for transforming the most humble ingredients into captivating dishes.
Pork chops with polenta, caramelized onions and peppers ($20) was a good example of a "modern progressive" option. The pork chop had a lovely smokiness, and while it probably could have been cooked a few minutes less, each bite was still moist. The sweetness of the caramelized onions, and the slight spiciness of a small pile of red and green peppers, beautifully cut into thin batons, kept the pork chop interesting without overwhelming the somewhat delicate flavor of the meat. The polenta, however, completely stole the show. It was smooth as silk and rich with the taste of butter and cheese, but got a nice kick from lots of black pepper. I would drive back to Indiana just for that polenta.
Dessert doesn't seem to be emphasized, although that might have been partly due to the Lenten season. On a Friday evening, there were only two on offer. The tiramisu ($4.75) wasn't particularly memorable, but the butterscotch pudding with rosemary cookies and whipped cream ($5.25) was a dreamy combination of cool, creamy salty-sweet pudding and crisp, herb-infused cookies.
The food, in true Italian style, is far from elaborate, but the constraints of the kitchen make the diversity of the menu and the attention to detail all the more impressive. The kitchen consists of a 10-burner stove, three burners of which are taken up by a pasta pot, a refill pot (with extra hot water) and meatballs and sausage, which simmer on the stove all night and are responsible for the delightful smell that constantly permeates the restaurant. In addition, there are two ovens, under-the-counter refrigerators and a minimal amount of counter space.
The dining room's relatively small size (36 person capacity) makes the small size of the kitchen workable, explained Mr. Karas.
"You can never be cooking all that much at one time. You just need to plan ahead and be creative. ... I don't want a big kitchen. Everything's right there at my fingertips within reach every minute."
On the nights (four out of five) when he is working with one of his two assistant cooks, "It's almost like we're dancing. We keep the space clean and uncluttered and we stay out of each other's way," he said.
Thanks to his two talented assistants, Mr. Karas is able to periodically travel, keeping up with culinary trends in bigger cities.
"It's important in this business to stay current, to continue to be progressive and put something new out every week," he said.
Given Mr. Karas' passion for developing his skills, some might wonder at his devotion to a restaurant so distinctly out of the culinary spotlight, but Mr. Karas doesn't feel a desire to test his talents in a larger pond.
"I'm happy here. My customers get it. Indiana's not just an old country town ... there's a lot of people that get what I'm doing and appreciate it."
Nap's Cucina Mia has changed a lot from the shot-and-a-beer bar that opened in 1949, but one important quality remains, which may well be the secret to the business's notable success.
Although the restaurant draws many diners from neighboring communities, "most of our customers are regulars," said Mr. Karas.
Late on a Friday evening, a few groups were still wandering in to eat, but the bar also began to fill up, a younger, more casual crowd filtering in after 9 p.m. After more than 50 years in the hospitality business, Nap's Cucina Mia remains a beloved gathering spot for a drink and conversation. It just so happens that you can also get a delicious meal.