7090 Deepage Dr.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Most dinner entrees $8.95 to $14.95
Credit Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa
Not all good linguini comes in crowded dining rooms with deafening noise and old-fashioned scruffiness. Sometimes it's found at a place like Piccolo's, a big ground-hugging box of a restaurant that smacks of newness, possibly even trendiness, with its dim lighting and severe black and white decor.
A hard chair, too little light and the menu's few weak links contributed to a mildly disappointing first visit. But by the third outing, when I had discovered the softer booths and the rest of the menu, I was convinced that this is one of the most reliable restaurants in town, with a conscientious kitchen that honors tradition but knows how to boogie. Although Piccolo's characterizes itself as a southern Italian provincial restaurant, it has nouvelle inclinations that show up occasionally in the wonderful daily menus. And there is a distinctly northern array of homemade egg-enriched ribbon pastas.
Of the appetizers on the regular menu, the mussels in white wine sauce and the mozzarella en carrozza are worth ordering again and again. The fresh, clean mussels come bathed in a butter white wine sauce made round and sweet with well-simmered garlic. A vivid tomato sauce that is made even brighter with capers offsets the richness of the two triangles of deep-fried mozzarella in a handsome portion that you will want to share.
"Things on toast" lovers will take right away to the bruschetta al gorgonzola. The four thick pieces of toast underneath a white sauce with a gentle bleu cheese tang have visible bits of fresh garlic and parsley.
Antipasto misto is a standard assortment of Italian cold cuts and marinated vegetables, served with a little too much lettuce.
I didn't try any of the daily soups, but the others augur well for them: veal-stuffed tortelloni is made with freshly ground meat and comes in a good, delicate broth, and minestrone casalinga is a very homey, all-vegetable, no-pasta version dominated by fresh zucchini.
It would be difficult to go wrong on the homemade pasta menu, which offers spaghettini, fettuccine, linguini, tortelloni and lasagne along with some smaller shapes. All except lasagne are available in large or small portions, and the portions are generous. The egg-fortified texture of this pasta seems best mated with the rich cream sauces. Fettucine sferza has a super oniony cream sauce with bits of ham and fresh mushroom. Agnolotti alla piedmontese, pasta rounds stuffed with ground veal and spinach in a parmesan sauce, is high quality but a trifle bland for a main dish.
If you have only one entree here, make it veal. Veal piccata, in a lemon-butter sauce with capers, is nothing short of superb, the scallopine truly velvety in a sunny, rich sauce. Although veal is available five other ways, including breaded, the piccata would be hard to beat.
Italian kitchens are not so interested in cows once they're full grown. There are only two beef dishes here, but both are worth considering. Grilled New York strip sirloins come plain, with a topping of sauteed mushrooms, or heaped with sauteed onions and three colors of peppers in a gentle balsamic vinegar sauce that is much better than it might sound.
Piccolo's is no slouch with chicken, either. Breasts come every way from grilled to sauteed, from the classic cacciatore to the house special (stuffed with spinach, mozzarella and prosciutto and sauteed in a white wine sauce). Pollo alla rustica is a pleasing combination of textures and flavors, with its sun-dried tomato, scallion and mushroom saute.
The succulent, assertive sun-dried tomatoes did not pair up quite so well with scallops. In a baroque dish of scallops sauteed with tomatoes, pine nuts and scallions on a bed of just-wilted spinach, the shy mollusks retreated under the barrage of flavors and their delicate fried coatings went soggy too soon.
Salsicce alla contadina, thin slices of fine-textured mild Italian sausage with peppers and onions, is a rustic preparation -- good, but a little goes a long way.
A good salad menu offers some interesting main-dish choices like chicken breast, white grape, walnut, and artichoke heart salad and a more Italian meat and cheese salad.
Do without that extra few bites of your dinner for a serving of the zabaglione, a very sweet custard made with marsala, eggs and sugar. Served over berries, it is a lighter conclusion than the homemade ricotta cheese cake and the cannoli whose shell was not quite light and crisp enough. Crema al caramello was a pleasant custard with more than the usual tinge of fresh orange. But don't forget to look at the daily menu, which has yielded cloudlike tiramisu (a kind of Italian chocolate trifle) and a glorious brandy-poached pear in bittersweet chocolate.