An Unprepossessing Maple Leaf Italian Place and Its Prepossessing Food
The interior of Cafe Piccolo fails to make an impression nearly completely. The exception: the Leg Lamp. The Leg Lamp stands in a corner, its shapely fishnet stocking glowing, wearing its high-heeled shoe and alluring fringed-lampshade skirt. If you haven't seen A Christmas Story, you should immediately, or the Leg Lamp at Cafe Piccolo won't make any sense, nor will the chortling and cries of "YOU'LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT!" that come from various tables as people spy it.
Otherwise, Cafe Piccolo's decor just slides right out of the mind. After having dinner there once, I could only recall some toys in a waiting zone (no children in evidence), a vague impression of a wine rack on one side, a midsize portal into the kitchen allowing for a reassuring but unloud amount of kitchen clatter, the Leg Lamp, and a very groovy orange metallic van that happened to be parked outside. (The exterior is even more unprepossessing, if possible; Piccolo shares the ground floor of an anonymous Maple Leaf condo building with a dentist's office. There's also a dog groomer, a nail salon, and the feeling that the whole neighborhood has taken a giant Xanax.) It's just a neighborhood Italian place with wall-to-wall carpeting and unbright, flattering lighting, including the requisite glowing red candleholder on each table.
The image that's ingrained in my brain, in all likelihood forever, is of a plate of Piccolo's pasta: purpley-dark wide ribbons of squid-ink pappardelle, looking kelplike, with pale circles and tiny tentacle-clusters of calamari nestled among them. It had the quality of an optical illusion about it, with the light-colored squid-squiggles appearing to be the pasta and the noodles like a lovely nighttime blanket of sauce. The face of my friend who ordered it had an expression of scary glee as she lifted it toward me, saying, "SMELL it"—then there was a waft of enticement, like the first smell of ocean when it's not yet in sight. And it was good, this calamari amatriciana ($16.95), the squid achieving a difficult-to-believe tenderness, with bits of pancetta, an utterly correct level of spicy heat, and the taste of the squid ink actually meaningful in the thickish, handmade noodles, a delicate doubling of the sea theme. The friend's face remained overjoyed while she inhaled everything but the bowl (and the portions are not small).
What would've been the worst case of food envy ever recorded was averted by the simple goodness of a selection from the old-school mix-'n'-match pasta-'n'-sauce menu: a plate of fettuccine Bolognese ($14.95) with the addition of meatballs ($4.95 extra). The fettuccine, chosen over spaghetti because it's house-made, had a rustic, nicely chewy substantiality. The ragu was the right color, more rich-brown than red, with bits of carrot still intact. The meatballs, made with organic pork and beef, were slightly rosy at their centers, with a hand-chopped texture and the scent of fennel and fresh oregano. A dish like this, done properly, is not a revelation; it's merely a joy. I wish I were eating it right now.
Cafe Piccolo has just got its heart in the right place. It's the first restaurant of a young married couple—he, Nick Carlino, is also the chef. He previously worked at the Turntable incarnation of the restaurant at EMP, Duke's, and Dahlia Lounge. About the last, he says, "People want you to mention something fancy," in a way that suggests he doesn't give lip service a lot of credence. Piccolo espouses the slow-food philosophy: excellent local ingredients, as much as possible made from scratch, with love. A pretty splendid antipasto plate ($10.95) recently featured, in addition to the listed delights—grilled artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, olives, eggplant agro dolce, minted carrots and beets, fontina, Gorgonzola dolce, and house-cured salami—house-made chorizo and capocollo. A new spring salad of grilled hearts of romaine ($6.95) is lemony with a little chili kick, punctuated with smoky-sweet candied almonds and bits of creamy-sharp blue cheese.
A second dinner was, perhaps inevitably, a bit of a letdown. Piccolo is the kind of place where if you had your druthers, you'd live in the neighborhood, find your favorite dishes, and never order anything else again. An appetizer of seafood bruschetta ($10.95) featured squid (as in the pasta dish, of an unparalleled, almost liquidy texture), scallops, and shrimp, with visible bits of garlic but a too-restrained flavor (salt and pepper helped). A special that night was big triangular ravioli filled with Dungeness crab and ricotta ($16.95), bathing in an English pea broth; the thick pasta, while subtly flavored with lemon and mint, was heavy against the fluffy filling. Chicken saltimbocca ($15.95) featured Rosie's organic chicken breast with house-cured pancetta, baby artichokes, asparagus tips, polenta like melted butter, and a sage sauce: very fine indeed. None of it could eclipse the memory of either the amatriciana or the meatballs.
Desserts' appeal varied rather wildly. An overset panna cotta ($5.95) seemed like it'd been dwelling in the fridge for too long; a clafouti with sweet-tart rhubarb topping ($5.95) had the weight of a doorstop. Far better: housemade chocolate gelato ($3.50), or liquid options in the form of limoncello and a grapefruit version of the Italian lemon liqueur ($6, made at Piccolo as well). Also noteworthy in the beverage department: a good, long list of Italian wines, divided by region and bargain priced (with by-the-glass options half-off on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Servers are friendly and casual, but they know the wines as well as the food.
The place has been open for a year and three-fourths—the Leg Lamp was a gift from the staff to Nick at Christmastime, after he decreed that it was the only holiday decoration he'd have on the premises. Then he thought, why not leave it up year-round? Even people who haven't seen the movie seem to appreciate its oddball charm.