On our first visit to Piccolo Italian Gourmet, there was no ignoring the scene unfolding six feet away. Three men in animated conversation paused to order three espressos, perhaps to quell the effects of a bottle of Romana sambuca planted squarely on their table. With the espresso came the check, which they fought over in mock battle — “I got it!” “I got it!” “I got it!” — until one at last waved the bill overhead in triumph.
And who wouldn’t be happy to pick up the tab at these prices? You can order a golden brown arancino the size of a navel orange — stuffed with Bolognese, set in a pool of marinara and oozing strands of melted mozzarella — for $4.50. Or chicken “any style” — francese, Marsala, Milanese, parmigiana, piccata or prosciutto — with what is quaintly described as the “vegetable of the day” for $16. Textbook tiramisù is $7. Imported house wines — rosso and bianco — are $8 a glass.
Opened in March 2015, Piccolo Italian Gourmet in Port Chester is owned by Peter Neglia; his cousin Stefano Gentili is the executive chef. Mr. Gentili is a native of Rome, and the menu, according to Mr. Neglia — who waits tables and chats with patrons — is meant to honor the family’s Roman heritage. In truth, the menu is more pan-Italian, offering a wide variety of crowd-pleasing pastas and panini. I would have loved to have seen more Roman specialties (spaghetti cacio e pepe, bucatini all’amatriciana or braised oxtails) in the mix. Tables are crowded and the décor is stark — some would say contemporary. The uplighting behind the bar is Listerine blue-green.
Mr. Gentili turns out some delectable little starters (puzzlingly called “tapas” on the menu): pan-seared shrimp swaddled in bacon; milky burrata paired with warm, chunky caponata; prosciutto di Parma and fresh mozzarella drizzled with honey-truffle oil; and tiny ruffled arugula mingled with pleats of prosciutto and shavings of Parmesan.
A fried artichoke, splayed like an upside-down chrysanthemum in a pool of pesto, had Roman roots (in carciofi alla giudia), but the artichoke should have been meatier, the pesto brighter. Caesar salad with a bold dressing and house-made croutons was described by a Caesar-salad maven as “O.K.”
Among pasta dishes, I especially liked a special called lasagna boscaiola (think “bosky,” or “woodsy”) topped with crunchy bread crumbs and layered with mushrooms, peas, prosciutto di Parma and a good besciamella. Linguine with shrimp in a lemon and cream sauce, scattered with an abundance of chopped parsley, appeared to have been unceremoniously slung on the plate. Braised-beef ravioli had good flavor, but they were blanketed with a gummy sauce on a plate with a heavily smudged rim.
Prudent diners will ask for the price of off-menu items; a “blackboard special” of lobster with fresh spaghetti in a cognac sauce — featuring a dried-out half of a very petite lobster and a rather watery sauce — was $38.)
We had hoped to order the osso buco with risotto Milanese but were skunked (“We sold out 12 orders!” said Mr. Neglia, a surprising outcome, since we were among the earliest diners that night). We instead ordered a special of sliced pork loin, cooked to a pink turn, served with a sweet-tart limoncello sauce and roasted potatoes. A fresh, delicate branzino filet with puttanesca sauce was a riot of color, olives, capers and cherry tomatoes commingling with broccoli florets and baby carrots.
Service was maddeningly uneven, which should not be the case in a 28-seat restaurant. Mr. Neglia was the only waiter on hand both nights we visited, and on a busy Saturday, he couldn’t keep up. Clearing our appetizer dishes, he asked if he could leave our forks, as if looking to eliminate at least one pesky task.
The kitchen, too, seemed pressed, with second courses arriving long after we’d finished a bottle of wine that we’d hoped would last through dinner. (On a Wednesday night, Mr. Gentili emerged from the back to set tables for the next day, complaining within earshot that a second waiter and the dishwasher had been no-shows.)
The best desserts were the luscious, boozy tiramisù and a limoncello-mascarpone layer cake with blossoms of whipped cream and raspberry squiggles (both the handiwork of Mr. Gentili). Cheesecake, made by Mr. Neglia’s mother, was a bit rustic, with a half-inch-thick graham cracker crust. Cannoli dip with pastry “chips” was a fun deconstruction of the classic, like after-dinner nachos. Chocolate cake, the only dessert made elsewhere, was not memorable.
One guest observed that Piccolo Italian Gourmet was “not trying to be something they’re not” — not a red-sauce joint or a hipster wood-burning-oven pizza place. But a somewhat inscrutable phrase on the restaurant’s website — “Our goal is to assist you in creating the ambiance you desire” — only emphasizes that this promising new place might benefit from a sharper focus.
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