Friday September 20, 2013 | 07:00 AM

Chef Damian Sansonetti is way beyond being just another rising young star in Portland. The fact is he had presence before he even got here.

With a formidable pedigree as executive chef at New York’s Bar Boulud to his agile ascent up the culinary ladder in Portland, he’s flying high in our fast-moving foodie metropolis. So much so that I’m not surprised that his restaurant, Piccolo, which opened last week, is already a culinarian’s divine romp.

The dining bar is flanked by a row of banquettes offering seating for two and four

He took over the Lilliputian space that was home to Portland’s highly regarded Bresca before that star chef, Krista Dejarlais, decamped for leafier pastures ( Honeybee on Sabbath Day Lake), paving the way for Sansonetti to swoop right in.

But that’s where any such likeness ends. Piccolo is its own brand. In fact, the only similarities are the address and that it still accommodates 20 diners at most.

The dining room is warm and cozy, but make reservations well in advance because it doesn't take much to fill this room to capacity

Some interior changes, however,  were made. The room is less prissy and certainly manlier. Sansonetti is running Piccolo together with his wife, Ilma Lopez, a New York trained pastry chef; this is their first time working together (she was formerly pastry chef at Grace).

The result is a well-run dining establishment that I’ve already been to twice in the last five days. The first time was opening night and then again two days ago when three of us descended on this charming outpost.

What’s coming out of the kitchen is rustic Italian fare, but none that you’re likely to have had elsewhere in our city. 

It’s not the heavy-handed Mama Mia hokum of garlicky rich tomato sauces, steaming bowls of pasta, or mile-high Parmigianas. Nor is it the fancier machinations of northern Italian cooking.  Instead it derives from southern and central Italy — Calabria, Sicily and Abruzzi regions.

After all, Sansonetti has a real Italian heritage, which hasn’t kept his peripatetic nature from cooking what he likes to eat and wherever it hails. What emerges is food of high refinement and flavor that guides the Piccolo menu to such stylish heights.

Consider some of the first courses.  The ricotta and “pane carasau” is a small plate that’s a must-have when you dine there.  Sansonetti prepares this special cracker-like bread and laces it with house-made local-milk ricotta and  Tuscan olive oil. 

Pane carasau, cracker bread with ricotta and olive oil

Then there’s the melanzane, a dish of roasted eggplant, Sicilian oregano and smoked ricotta, which Sansonetti gets from a special purveyor in Italy. The texture of the eggplant was silky but rich with traces of herbs and a delicate counterpoint of the smoked cheese. It’s as sweet as candy and soft like silk, and I could eat this dish every day.

Eggplant with tomato, smoked ricotta and oregano, paired with a Sicilian white wine from the excellent regional wine list

The couple who joined me for dinner had, however, mixed feelings about the food as we progressed.  Portlanders, they also live in Tuscany and are well versed in the cuisines of Italy. The husband thought the cooking could have been more robust while his wife, as did I, disagreed completely, loving every bite and morsel. It’s subtle, it’s elegant but passionate cooking.

We happily soldiered on to the next courses. The star for me was the grilled sardines served with charred peppers, chickpeas and red onion. They tasted as though they had been brined or pickled.  But they weren’t. Instead they had the purity of flavor of absolutely fresh sardines — boned and grilled and perfectly assembled with the other ingredients. 

Sardines with chick peas, charred peppers and red onion is a soulful dish

It was a good foundation to go on to the main courses. What became an easy winner was the house-made cavatelli with lamb-neck ragu, eggplant, orange and pecorino. Usually a ragu is an intense amalgam of meat simmered slowly in a tomato base with aromatics and stock.  But here again Sansonetti makes a soothing rendition that is more restrained. You taste the lamb, the eggplant, the incredible texture of the hand-made pasta and the sharp saltiness of the pecorino — all becoming the compatriots of a great dish. 

Hand-made cavatelli with lamb ragu

Local milk-fed pork over Swiss chard, garlic and Marsala

Slow-baked local hake with those dreamy-creamy potatoes, capers, pine nuts and tomatoes

We also tried the slow baked fish and the local milk-fed pork tenderloin. The potatoes that are served with  the fish are cooked in whey and then crisped. The result is unexpected: the creamy interior gives way to the crusty outer seal as you roll everything around the pine nuts, capers and tomatoes.

The pork was buttery soft, served with an underpinning of sautéed Swiss chard, garlic and Marsala — another breezily delicious dish.

For now desserts by Chef Ilma Lopez are simple but beautifully devised. There’s the affogato — strong French-press coffee poured over a vanilla cream — and a tiramisu infused with a delicate sponge and cream stacked into a glass cup. It’s all heavenly good.

Affogato before the coffee pour

Affogato "after" the pour

Tiramisu

In a way, Piccolo’s location at the tail end of the Middle Street Old Port business district is strategic .  It’s like passing through the sentry gate to the reigning restaurant row that beckons a block away.  That’s where the formidable hijinks of Hugo’s, Eventide, et al, hold sway, while Piccolo keeps to itself so supremely.

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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