Pastry Chef Ilma Lopez is proof that good things come in small packages. When you walk intoPiccolo, the pint-sized restaurant she co-owns with husband Damian Sansonetti in Portland, Maine, you'll find a truly remarkable level of fine-dining finesse packed into a teensy-tiny trattoria. What you won't find are outlandish prices. "We wanted to make [great food] more accessible," says Lopez. From comfortingly familiar Italianate desserts like budinos and zeppole, to unexpected Sunday Supper finales incorporating everything from wasabi to bone marrow, this petit chef brings her special brand of refinement and ingenuity to every level of the Piccolo operation, delivering big city flavor to her small city patrons.
"We don't really believe that you need a ton of money to eat well," says Lopez. "We've tried to cut costs in other areas to make the main focus on food. That's how we're able to get away from it. Keeping the restaurant simpler so your costs are lower." It's this fine-food-for-the-masses approach that distinguishes Lopez's desserts—in conjunction with her fearless flavor combinations. A recent Sunday Supper culminated in Orange Blossom Granita with Smoked Caviar, White Grapefruit, Olio Nuovo, Maldon Sea Salt, and a Blood Orange Tuile. And if traditional Italian fried dough isn't enough for you, try the Bone Marrow-filled Bomboloni instead.
Monday through Saturday, Tiramisu with Black Cardamom and Cherry Syrup or Pizzelles with Goat's Milk Ricotta, Roasted Nectarines, and Abruzzo Honey are the desserts you wish your Italian grandmother would whip up for you. But it's on the Sunday Supper menu that Lopez's quirky creativity truly shines. "If I have an idea for something that has nothing to do with Italian food, it's for Sunday," says Lopez. One such recent departure involved Flexible Chocolate Ganache with Vanilla-Wasabi Ice Cream, Brown Butter Brownies, and Caramel Cocoa Nibs.
Reflecting her background in top restaurants from DB Bistro Moderne to El Bulli, Lopez's artful, product-driven dishes merge French technique with modernist upbringing. "Flavor-wise I always try to work with things we haven't mixed before," she says. It's this drive for constant innovation that fuels Lopez's creativity, and the whimsical results keep her guests coming back for more. "You can open people's minds to try new things by always pairing them with something familiar." Big city or small town, that's a recipe for success wherever you're cooking.