It’s no surprise that a chef with a name like Nicola Palmieri is accomplished in perfecting all things Italian in the kitchen.

“Cooking’s been in my blood all my life,” says the owner of MainStrasse’s Europa Bistro & Café (also a deli and gelato stop). He apprenticed in the family kitchen in Como, Italy, and at the elbows of his uncle and father who both had restaurants. (His father was a chef at Caproni’s, a long-ago local favorite at 610 Main St., Cincinnati.)

What’s surprising is that, after a course at the Culinary Institute of America in 1984, Palmieri took a left turn into computers, partnering in a software company in Southfield, Mich., and commuting from Greater Cincinnati . . . for 26 years no less.

Computer Geek

“I was probably the only computer geek getting food magazines,” he says. “But I always said that when I retired, opening a restaurant is what I wanted to do.”

He got a chance to practice when he left the software business and worked for a year to bring a convenience store/Italian deli out of bankruptcy. It was in Cleveland, so he was still commuting. “I’ve never been afraid of a challenge,” he laughs.

Four years ago, not content with dabbling in private events to “satisfy my skills and keep up with friends in the kitchen,” he opened the cozy Europa, a family venture with son Jeff as sous chef and wife Carol on dessert duty.

The process took some adjustment, but things are settling in. “In the beginning I had so many ideas. I was all over the place, trying this, trying that. But you have to look at food costs, and you learn very fast what’s realistic and what’s not,” he says.

‘Keep ’Em Happy’

One of those things was portions. “When I started out it was more like the old Italian philosophy – give ’em a lot of food and keep ’em happy. Everybody was taking out a box. It was just too much food. Now everybody leaves satisfied but with not so many boxes.”

His breakfast/lunch/dinner menus are stocked with Old-World favorites including Italian frittatas for breakfast, muffalettas and ciabattas for lunch and a requisite signature filet for evening. But evening diners are in for the most adventure.

Best-Selling Boar

Palmieri changes the salad every day and the dinner menu every two weeks, twisting traditional favorites – champagne lobster ravioli, a vegetarian Wellington, osso buco Milanese, stuffed roasted mirasol and Poblano  peppers – and wading into wild game offerings.

The Julius Caesar roasted boar is the No. 1 seller, and goat is “very, very popular,” he says. “Julius Caesar found boar in Gaul and brought it to Rome, and it was one of his favorites.”

But in conservative Cincinnati? “People really are adventurous here,” he insists. “The first time I did something wild, people went insane over it. Then Polly Campbell (Enquirer food writer) mentioned it, and boar has become the best-seller. If I took it off the menu, people would become upset.”

His secret to introducing a gamey entrée is “to cook it right so it doesn’t taste gamey. I cook the boar 6½ hours and season it so the gaminess is gone.”

Next he’s setting his sights on alligator. “For years, you couldn’t get me to eat alligator tail, but now it’s one of my favorites. It’s phenomenal tasting if cooked right. It’s about three menus away, but it takes forever to find a good supplier around here.”

Don’t think your offerings are restricted to Italian plates at Europa.

Palmieri confesses that Cajun is his favorite way to cook, followed by Portuguese, then Italian at No. 3.

“Italian is second nature to me because of my family, but the others are so much fun.

“Under all my fish dishes is a Cajun seasoning. And I have Italian paella on the menu but it has Portuguese sausage, like chorizo, plus chicken, paprika and different spices. And I love to cook with fruits. That’s big in modern Portuguese cooking.”