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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

The sardines were cured in red-wine vinegar, saffron (from Abruzzi), sea salt, sugar, mustard seeds, Calabria chili and Sicilian oregano. Extraordinary!

As for the pasta, the hand-rolled cavatelli is lightly sauced with an earthy lamb ragu, topped with eggplant, orange and pecorino.

What ultimately set the standard for me of Sansonetti’s abilities as a chef unfolded at the first of his Sunday suppers, which I went to a few weeks ago.

It’s a five-course prix fixe dinner ($49) with a menu that is entirely up to the chef. You have the option, however, to alert the kitchen to personal preferences.

Without notice to the restaurant – to maintain some degree of anonymity – we arrived without a reservation to dine at the bar. It was then that I informed our waitress that my dinner guest was a strict vegan. Could the kitchen, I asked, accommodate on such short notice? My own requirements were easy. I eat everything!

On the spot Sansonetti devised two brilliant meals. With it we opted for the wine pairing for each course. This added another $50 to the tab per person, but it was well worth it. Two of my favorite pairings included the Tenuta Ronci Argento, Chardonnay, 2012, and the Martilde Barbera, 2011.

The vegan menu began with crostini of chickpeas followed by roasted local delicata squash. The pasta course of Abruzzi-style buccatini (house-made) with roasted cauliflower arrabbiatta (a spicy blend of tomatoes and olive oil) and a selection of assorted olives came out next. The dessert was a Lambrusco jelly and red wine honey with fennel. It was an amazing meal rendering my vegan friend blissfully sated.

My heartier feast began with crostini topped with lamb kidneys, speckled with bits of heirloom beans and Italian blood sausage. This was followed by a felicitous fish course of olive oil-poached swordfish belly that was exceedingly delicate. A mesmeric pasta course – so light it nearly levitated off the plate – was gnocchi mixed with pork blood and braised pork belly, orange zest, red peppers and house-made lardo. A cheese course concluded the savory offerings. Dessert was an intense bittersweet ricotta cake with roasted hazelnuts and chocolate cream.

The range of dishes and the ease with which the kitchen could put out such a complex, extemporaneously prepared dinner could only have occurred from a chef who knows exactly what he’s doing.

John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: jdgmaine@gmail.com

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