Open Monday through Friday for lunch, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Monday through Saturday for dinner, 6 to 10:30 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations. Valet parking. Prices: Pastas at dinner $8 to $9.50; main courses $11.75 to $16.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 to $35, about $25 at lunch.
Where are Italian restaurants going? From penthouse to basement, for one, and from suburbs to city. Then to France for menu ideas; Marie de' Medici once introduced Italian inspiration to the French kitchen repertoire, and Italian restaurants are stealing it back. The most celebrated restaurant in Rome doesn't even list pasta on the menu. And hardly a downtown Italian restaurant has opened in the last 10 years without snails French-style or sweetbreads with madeira sauce on the menu.
Piccolo Mondo has both, but fortunately has left quenelles and duck a l'orange to Jean-Pierre upstairs. The menu is sprinkled with smoked salmon and filet rossini, (which, despite its Italian name, is more at home in Paris than in Rome) but otherwise is faithfully Italian. The menu is, furthermore, more short and simple than in most upper-bracket downtown Italian restaurants. It lists seven pastas, only two of them -- tortellini and cannelloni -- stuffed. How brave to show up without agnolotti! Its main dishes number at least two dozen, but a quarter are sauteed veal scallops, three more are chicken breasts, and not a single dish is wrapped in pastry or stuffed with a mousse. What is most Italian about this menu is that everything is left pretty much in its natural shape and at most sauced, layered or accompanied by something else. In fact, almost everything is cooked quickly -- grilled, sauteed or fried -- except a baked baby lamb with herbs (for two) and baked sea bass with garlic and oregano. As for the regional style of Italian cooking at Piccolo Mondo, it stretches from north (Vitello Monte-Bianco with cream and mushrooms) to south (red bell pepper stuffed with Sicilian caponata and served cold as an appetizer).
The look of the restaurant, however, is pure New York. Its basement location is turned to advantage with a Fred Astaire style Art Deco stairway encouraging a grand entrance. Chrome and etched glass and giant bowls of lilies are but the decorative antipasto to this multi-room dining enclave. Next is a bar, a superb Art Deco momento of pastel lights and fans of silvery metal strips. The dining rooms are so divided and reflected in mirrors that you can feel both private and within an endless labyrinth of diners. It is a daring design, not only in the shaping and subdividing, but in combining lipstick red carpet with walls of eggplant.
Don't let the decorative style of the restaurant influence your ordering, and you will be better off. The few unsuccessful dishes among the many I tried were the more complicated or exotic ones. A homely dish like pasta and bean soup is extremely good, the broth light but pungent with herbs and cheese. Fried mozzarella celebrates simplicity, just cheese and bread -- as crumb coating and base -- perfectly fried. The appetizers include the ever-present prosciutto with melon; oysters; snails; and several stuffed things: mushrooms stuffed with cheese, avocado stuffed with shrimp, sweet red peppers stuffed with caponata and often zucchini stuffed with minced veal. The latter two are fine examples of Italian vegetable artistry; the cold red peppers contrast well with the unctuous eggplant and acid of the capers in the filling, as pretty a combination as the red carpet with eggplant-colored walls. Zucchini rises above its cliches with an airy, lemon-accent veal stuffing, and the fried zucchini at Piccolo Mondo is extraordinary, cut matchstick-thin and coated with the lightest of batters, although one time it was served to me just short of burned. Only fried artichokes were disappointing among Piccolo Mondo's vegetables dishes, no fault of the frying but of the tasteless, mushy artichoke hearts.
Instead of a long list of pastas, Piccolo Mondo limits itself to seven straightforward, familiar ones, and does them generally well. The egg noodles for fettucine Alfredo and pappardelle Capri were as delicate as one would wish, and their sauces boldly seasoned, as a pasta dish should be. Linguine with while clam sauce, on the other hand, needed more zest; once you had eaten the fresh bay clams, the pasta itself carried little flavor. Lasagne as a lunch special one day was far from special; though the noodles were well made, the ground meat sauce with rubbery chunks of egg was unpleasant.
Fish and veal showed this kitchen to advantage. From rockfish with tomatoes, olives, capers and white wine, the whole very robust, to sole in a wispy egg batter topped just with butter, lemon and walnuts (though the menu mentioned cream that was not apparent in the sauce), the fish was very fresh and cooked with respect. Scallops were tiny sweet ones, and are the highlight of the fritto misto, which was lightly crusted and not greasy but just a touch overcooked. Veal is bought with similar attention to quality and cooked with similar attention; a pounded veal chop with nuggets of sauteed potato and cubes of artichoke was lightly scented with sage -- an impressive dish. Except for the disastrous lasagne, the kitchen showed a southern Italian talent for tomato sauces, whether on the fish or the veal pizzaiola.
The most intriguing dish I tried, however, was the most disappointing to taste. Quail, three of them, were butterflied and wrapped in prosciutto, served in a sherry cream sauce with grapes. The sauce was fine, nutty and faintly sweet. But the quails were dry and tasteless, the ham reduced to just a crunchy texture with no flavor. The other major -- and repetitive -- flaw I encountered was a tendency to float things in a pool of butter: asparagus, fish, and otherwise superior calves' liver slid around in greasy puddles. The salads, on the other hand, were impeccably dressed with just a glisten of olive oil. Don't miss the arugola if it is available.
You can expect to be impressed by the dessert cart, for it usually shows two decorative butter cream tortes -- liqueur-drenched crowd pleasers -- and beautiful berries which the captain will either cover with cream or arrange with a few slices of kiwi for a colorful finish. The strawberry tart easily finishes last among the dessert choices. And the espresso tastes no more Italian than the strawberry tart.
Piccolo Mondo has gathered a far-ranging list of Italian wines with a few French, German and California additions. The prices are about what you expect downtown, though not nearly as high at Tiberio's; the Corvo, for instance, is $13, the Bolla soave $12. Most welcome is a nice choice of half-bottles.
Service at Piccolo Mondo is graced with many a flourish, but you are, of course, paying for such flourishes with $13 to $16 fish and veal, $8 to $9 pastas. Five dollars for an appetizer, $9 for a main course are normal at lunch here. Those are K Street prices nowadays, although I do not understand why rockfish was $16.50 at dinner, the highest price main course on the menu.