November 17, 2013

Dine Out Maine: A virtuoso chef plays at Piccolo

The spot offers the rustic flavors of the Abruzzi and Calabria regions of Italy.

By John Golden

Often it’s all in the delivery.

click image to enlarge

Piccolo, on Middle Street in Portland’s Old Port, is a small space with seating for just 20 diners. The elegant southern Italian cuisine is prepared by chef Damian Sansonetti.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Piccolo restaurant at 111 Middle St. in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

IF YOU GO

PICCOLO

**** 1/2

WHERE: 111 Middle St., Portland. 747-5307; piccolomaine.com

HOURS: Dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

PRICE RANGE: First courses, $5 to $12; entrees, $19 to $26; Sunday supper, $49 for five-course prix fixe

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)

KIDS: Welcome

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Wine and beer

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: For authentic southern Italian cooking, elegantly and simply prepared, Piccolo offers an outstanding dining experience in a small, casual café setting. The wine list offers serious bottlings from Italy’s outstanding wine-producing regions; the list is well-priced. The menu changes daily, but best dishes include any of the pastas, pork, lamb and fish preparations. When available, the slow-baked fish with potatoes cooked in whey is a standout, as is the brined sardines and cavatelli with lamb ragu. Desserts are made by pastry chef and co-proprietor Ilma Lopez.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: * Poor ** Fair *** Good ****Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Some years ago I invited a spirited lady friend to join me for lunch at a fashionable cafe in midtown Manhattan. She was a dead ringer in speech, looks and manner for the character, Alexis, played by Joan Collins in the epic TV drama, “Dynasty.”

She breezed in, took a quick look around and said, “My dear, if I didn’t know it was chic, I wouldn’t have known.”

Fast-forward to Portland, walking into Piccolo, the brainchild of wunderkind chef Damian Sansonetti, mightn’t my friend have proclaimed, “If I didn’t know it was such a temple of gastronomy, I wouldn’t have known!”

After many visits I’m impelled to proclaim that Piccolo is the best of the new breed of dining establishment to have opened here this year. It’s not chic or outwardly trendy, but, rather, it is seriously good.

Sansonetti slipped into Maine a year ago on the heels of a highly successful career in New York, where he was the executive chef of Bar Boulud – part of the Daniel Boulud empire of international dining establishments.

When Sansonetti arrived in Portland, his wife, Ilma Lopez – also a Boulud alumnus – was already working as the pastry chef at Portland’s Grace Restaurant. Their plan was to open a fine-dining establishment together – two pros aligned to give our city an exciting dining venue.

Along the way he was consulted to tweak the menu at Taco Escobar and then opened his instant-hit, unique sandwich shop, the Blue Rooster Food Co. on Dana Street.

The little shop-front that is now the home of Piccolo (formerly Bresca) sits discreetly along the streetscape. Knee deep in the Old Port, it’s on the stretch of Middle Street where the surrounding architecture isn’t as impressive as the row of 19th-century buildings preceding it. Inside the décor is simple, revealing a Lilliputian dining room that accommodates only 20 diners.

The wait staff is efficient and very informed about the menu. Nearly everything that comes out of the kitchen is house-made or expressly imported from Italy, and the staff does a thorough job of explaining every detail.

Piccolo is not a kitchen of old-school red-sauce Italian-American cooking. Instead Sansonetti presents a meticulous interpretation of the cuisines of southern Italy – namely, the rustic flavors of the Abruzzi and Calabria regions.

It takes a discerning palate, however, to appreciate his food. The cooking won’t knock you over like downing a head of garlic. And for some this restrained style is fleeting. For the more astute, however, the sum of the ingredients – so subtle and refined – evokes an inspirational web of flavor.

During my many visits certain dishes were surefire standouts. I loved the little “snack” called pane carasu – house-made ricotta ($7) to accompany the addictive homemade cracker-like bread.

Another starter dish not to miss is the melanzane ($10) – roasted eggplant with oregano and smoked ricotta.

Some of the main courses that I’ve tried with guests in tow included a dish called Del Mar ($24), an incredible preparation of slow-baked fish (hake or other local white fish), served with potatoes cooked in whey, a process that renders these into the creamiest morsels; the dish is further harmonized by a judicious mélange of pine nuts, capers and tomatoes.

Another notable preparation that one guest deemed “perfection” was porcellino ($25) – meltingly tender, local milk-fed pork with Swiss chard, heirloom garlic and Marsala, an ambrosial preparation of impeccable texture and flavor.

On another occasion I went solo to dine at the bar to enjoy a simple meal of two incredible preparations: sarde scapece (brined sardines, $11) followed by cavatelli (pasta fatta casa, $23) with lamb-neck ragu.

(Continued on page 2)

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