By Elizabeth Peavey / Photographed by Douglas Merriam
There was a time that doesn’t seem so long ago in some Port-landers’ memories that “going out for Italian” meant a feed at the Village Café, a cavernous, family-style, red-sauce joint where leftovers from your boat-size portion of lasagna or chicken parm would serve as lunch for the next couple days.
Today, however, the array and excellence of Portland’s Italian eateries sometimes confounds. In fact, you can practically specify right down to the postal code the style of regional cooking you want.
Enter the new kid on the block, Piccolo, located in a narrow envelope of a space next to the Portland Police Department, just off the Franklin Arterial. But don’t let the restaurant’s name (Italian for “small”) or the size of the space (20 seats max) deceive you. What awaits inside are big flavors and big fun, where chef-owners Damian Sansonetti and his wife, Ilma Lopez, want you to feel at home. Appropriately, the tiny bright turquoise awning jutting out over Middle Street bears the words: tavolo e famiglia. Table and family.
Sansonetti, a former chef at the acclaimed Bar Boulud in New York, and Lopez, a pastry chef, started coming to Maine through Sansonetti’s affiliation with Browne Trading Company, a purveyor to Bar Boloud. The couple fell in love with Portland. On their first visit, they ate at four restaurants in one day, the first being a little hole-in-the-wall called Bresca. The couple was blown away by the level of cooking, the intimate space, and how comfortable they felt. This, they thought, looking around, is what we want.
Numerous trips back and forth from New York ensued. Lopez worked for a year as pastry chef at Grace restaurant until Sansonetti could join her permanently. And then, after looking at and rejecting every available restaurant space in Portland, a certain cozy, 20-seat spot on Middle Street — the one formerly occupied by Bresca — became available. Lopez had just had a baby. Sansonetti was in full thrall with another full-time restaurant gig. The timing couldn’t be worse. “So,” they say, flashing conspiratorial grins, “we went for it.”
The room was opened up and transformed from snug and hushed to rustic and airy. The palette is decidedly pastry inspired: cocoas and creams and chocolates, with the occasional hint of color (a lone turquoise shutter mounted on the wall, festive travel posters hung behind the bar). The space can be a little austere — a decided choice to keep things casual — but as night falls and the room fills, it grows warm and inviting.
Almost instantly, Piccolo was a hit. The locus of the menu was central and southern Italy, with an emphasis on the Calabria and Abruzzi regions. Sansonetti turned to his family’s roots and the flavors he remembers as a child: not the garlic and rosemary of Tuscany or heavy red sauces of Napoli, but of mint, chiles, seafood, nuts, and citrus. These are complemented by Piccolo’s all-Italian wine list, which trends toward the unusual and unfamiliar, but the knowledgeable staff will gladly help guide you.
The menu is broken into three small categories: snacks, starters, and mains. Charred cauliflower with anchovy, citrus, slivers of olive, and a dusting of crunchy breadcrumbs will inspire home cooks to try replicating it the next day — perhaps at the cost of a baking dish. Squid tossed with frisée and mandarin orange sections is so delicately prepared and lightly dressed you will find no resemblance to the chewy rubber bands you often find on other menus. These are small helpings, and those with heartier appetites might not want to share, but the entrées that follow are ample and filling.
The main menu is protein heavy — lamb shanks, thick-cut pork chops, slow-baked fish — but any dietary restrictions are happily accommodated with an off-menu alternative. Sansonetti is in constant contact with local mongers and purveyors, and what ends up on the evening’s menu is often inspired by what came available that morning. On the other hand, Piccolo’s signature dish — house-made cavatelli pasta coated with lamb-neck ragout and topped with curls of Pecorino — takes two days to build. Even if you eat only one small bite at a time, before you know it, the ride will be over, the plate clean.
Despair not, dessert is on the way. Lopez’s creations are flights of fancy and high-wire acts. Take the Allagash, a chocolate mousse made with Allagash Black Ale and served in a stemless wine glass. Delving into this dessert is akin to an arch-aeological dig. You must first carve your way through an upper crust of salty, crunchy chocolate-cake crumbles, to a chocolate budino that is studded with crispy chocolate-coated puffs that seem like Rice Krispies (they are), and down to a thick sludge of chocolate pudding at the bottom of the glass that will leave you clinking your spoon to shave away the last traces.
And while you might not be carting home boxes of lunchtime leftovers from your meal, you will feast on its memory for days.