Practice makes perfect: Rik-N-Nik’s knows authentic Italian cuisine

EBENSBURG – Rick Ardini makes many of the ingredients, certainly most of the seasonings, that go into his pizzas, pasta, wings and things at Rik-N-Nik’s downtown restaurant.

He is so passionate about what goes in his cuisine that he tastes and tweaks repeatedly until he gets the recipes just right. How does he know how to do that?

“From lots of eating and knowing what’s good,” Ardini said. “If we can make the individual ingredients, we make them. That sets us apart from everybody else.”

But he also believes genes have a lot to do with the success of his restaurant that opened in June 2011. “We’re not the first pizza place here,” he said. “But the others weren’t Italian. If you’re eating it all your life, you should know what it tastes like.”

Rik-N-Nik’s is a family affair, with his wife also serving as his partner – Nikki is the Nik in the restaurant’s name. Their oldest son, Bryan, helped them open the restaurant four years ago, but now is a chef in Hanover. Corey, their middle son, is in charge of the pizza, and youngest son, Tony, is in charge of the grill.

Ardini, 47, says his passion for preparing food dates to a trip he took when he was 17 with an aunt and uncle across New York state, going to different restaurants every day and trying different food. He worked at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant near Route 22 for years until it closed. Then he underwent job retraining in the telecommunications business, installing telephone, fiber optics and security systems for a while. While out on medical leave from a job selling cars, he started missing the restaurant business and longed to open his own place.

Ardini looked around, inquired about the location at 220 W. High St., and “the rest is history.”

His mother, Evelyn, said her son always was good at improving on recipes.

“Now, I’ll take a recipe and add something to it, but Rick is real good at doing that,” she said. “He’s always tweaking it.”

Ardini said he listens to any and all suggestions – from friends, family or customers – and he will add seasonal items to the menu. His parents winter in Louisiana and brought back Cajun suggestions, and he put together an olive salad and a muffaletta he insists is just like those made in New Orleans, but smaller. He also learned how to make jambalaya and gumbo, which he serves during Mardi Gras season, and he will use ingredients shipped from Louisiana … until he figures out how to make them himself.

“The menu changes occasionally,” Ardini said.

But pizza is the signature item and most popular, particularly his New York-style hand-tossed pizza. “Ours is the most authentic hand-tossed, from the dough to the sauce to the cheese,” Ardini said.

Ardini makes his own sauce from a California brand of tomatoes.

“Like grapes, the tomatoes take the flavor from the soil, and these have the perfect sweetness to them,” he said. “With garlic and our own special spices, it’s the best.”

Strombolis are popular, too, along with Ardini’s own Stuffed Rolls, which come with pepperoni and cheese or spinach and bacon.

The “Sammiches” menu lists a slow-cooked pulled pork and hot sausage, as well as a reuben for which the restaurant makes its own thick-cut rye bread.

“One thing we put on there that’s not usually on a Reuben is a remoulade sauce that we make ourselves instead of Thousand Island dressing,” Ardini said.

He also uses Grande cheese, which “is the best and most expensive, but it’s worth it in the end,” he said.

One “sammich” that isn’t always on the menu is a Cheese-ogie, which is a pierogie-like sandwich on Texas toast with cheese, onions and bacon. Unless it’s during Lent, “you’ve got to have the bacon,” he said. “That’s special.”

Rik-N-Nik’s also makes salads, including a steak salad that uses a 5-ounce burgundy marinaded steak “cooked to your liking,” he said.

“We have a taco that is ginormous, 9 inches,” he said. “That’s a meal.”

Ardini also takes a lot of pride with his boardwalk-style fries. He only uses Pennsylvania potatoes, he said, because they’re firmer and crisper than others.

“We soak them to pull out the starch, but until we switched to Pennsylvania potatoes, they were limp after just a few minutes,” he said.

Smokey Mountain Fries are dusted with his own smoked seasoning and served with his own maple dipping sauce. Another type is called Fryer Crackers, and the fries are dusted with a spicy-sweet seasoning and served with a sriracha coffee dipping sauce.

“Yes, we make a coffee gravy, a roux, really, and we add coffee like you would beef broth,” he said. “It’s a thickening agent for our sauces,” one for fries, another for wings.

Ardini claims to have duplicated Zax Sauce, the core dipping sauce for the Zaxby’s restaurant chain’s chicken tenders.

He said a military friend kept describing the taste to him and finally brought him packets of the sauce while traveling in the South where the restaurants are primarily found.

“I tasted and made, I tasted and made; I kept tasting it and making it,” Ardini said. His friend says his is better than the chain’s.

Ardini says his customers compare his barbecue sauce to Sweet Baby Rays.

“Friends recommend ideas to me, and I’ll try them,” he said.

And the Ardinis have a lot of friends in Ebensburg, in no small part because they’re active in downtown affairs. He is the Santa Claus for the “Dickens of a Christmas” event, serves on the Wheels & Wings event committee and participates in PotatoFest. The Ebensburg Mainstreet Partnership nominated the restaurant for a small-business award this year.

“Ebensburg is thriving,” Ardini said. “It’s the people. And, the borough does a great job of sponsoring events.”

Ardini also expanded the restaurant this year by adding a “party room” to accommodate 32 patrons in addition to the 25 original seats.

But it’s the great food that keeps regular customers – some from as far away as Johnstown and Indiana County – coming back.

Bob Gelormino’s office is next door and said he visits Rik-N-Nik’s three times a week.

“The pizza is awesome,” he said. “The wings are great. And we like the spaghetti meal, too.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.