No small praise
By BRIAN DUFF
“Piccolo” means “small,” which seems appropriate for the new Italian restaurant occupying the little space at 111 Middle Street. But “piccolo” is also a common term of affection for a child who is especially adored. As the carefully nurtured product of pair of married chefs, Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, Piccolo is perhaps best understood in terms of the little-beloved offspring who enchant us, but occasionally frustrate us as well — each in both expected and unexpected ways. Children’s charming simplicity hides challenging complexities; they cost more than you hoped; their best moments are too fleeting. So it is at Piccolo.
Kids look so much cuter in hand-me-downs than the latest stuff from stores. Piccolo too is the more inviting for having foregone a splashy redesign and rested on the inherited charm of the space that recently housed Bresca. The décor is minimal — rustic shutters and some Italian posters on the wall, blonde-wood tables lining a long bench. The cozy space, with so few tables, gives you the sense you will be looked after.
And the service is good, if peculiar. Our waiter’s florid descriptions of the dishes veered into performativity. The approach doesn’t quite match the rustic simplicity Piccolo otherwise cultivates, but seemed innocuous until she opined that the bottle of Salice Salentino we ordered lacked “elegance” and pushed a pricier one. Piccolo, like any beloved child, can be surprisingly expensive. This is thanks to its many intriguing but small appetizers and snacks, but especially due to a short wine list with few options under $40. On a list like that every bottle should be worthy of special note.
Certainly the food is worth recommending. Piccolo specializes in the cuisine of southern Italy, where, as the peninsula plunges deeper into the Mediterranean, dishes get lighter and flavors sharper — with more fish, oil, and olives. Piccolo deploys these flavors with a light touch — something notable in an era so in love with ingredients of southern Italy that we coat everything with olive oil, garlic, balsamic, etc. The chefs at Piccolo don’t spoil their child with over-indulgence.
So, for example, the charred cauliflower is spotted with anchovies so modestly that the fish serves more as seasoning than accompaniment. Slivers of olive were just slightly more assertive, and the breadcrumbs added a touch of char and texture to the tender vegetable. A tuna crudo featured one neat little pile left so naked that the only taste was the rich meaty, slightly mineral flavor of fish. Longer slices of fattier belly meat mingled with bitter radish, and translucent marrow was pure slimy salt — like a sea-aspic.
A baccala appetizer showed off everything Piccolo does well. A perfectly poached egg quivers amid a shallow bowl of pinkish salted cod. The tender but chewy fish mingles with the textures of soft potato and stewed tomato — all pulled together by the richness of the creamy yolk. It is great Italian comfort food. Nearly as good was a roasted eggplant with a dark sear and perfect pillowy texture. It mixed perfectly with a rich and creamy smoked ricotta and the mild acids of tomato.
An entrée of sole had been slow-baked, but maintained the delicate tenderness of a perfect poach. The accompanying mix of vinergary grape salsa, chard, and capers, were together salty and substantial while still bright and light. A big comforting bowl of just-toothsome little twists of cavatelli pasta had a funky earthy flavor, enhanced by the complex sour-bitter of eggplant. Some bright notes of orange and fennel kept the dish from being heavy. For dessert we liked a trifle in which chef Lopez layered whipped cream with a dense salty caramel and chocolate cake, topped with an airy-crunchy layer of caramel flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen.
Chef Sansonetti cooked French at Bar Boulud in New York, and with Piccolo returns to the cuisine of his childhood. The little child we all adore most is the inner child we never quite mastered. Piccolo comforts and indulges that child, but not too much. Thanks to a restrained approach, smallish portions, elegant wine, and subtleties of flavor, Piccolo asks us to grow up a bit.