With just 1,200 square feet to spare for her new, all-day cafe, Piccolina in CityCenterDC, Amy Brandwein figured she had to pick one piece of equipment to execute most of her menu. Wisely, she opted for a wood-burning oven, big enough for three people to work in front of it and hot enough (650 degrees) to “maximize flavor and cook food fast,” says the chef, who also owns the Italian-inspired Centrolina across the alley from Piccolina.
Lucky neighbors — and anyone else who visits the former Rare Sweets. Morning, noon and night got more mouthwatering with the addition of Piccolina’s oak-fired oven. Crepes bundled with ham and fontina, and brushed with beaten egg, are fluffy wonders served in paper sleeves on a plate-size paddle. Chicken punched up with lemon and oregano emerges from the heat as juicy as can be, and it becomes a prized salad when it’s splayed over Parmesan-dusted greens.
If you only try one thing, make it a warm sandwich featuring panuozzo, based on a bread found in the Campania region of Italy and similar to pizza dough. Piccolina packs porchetta, mustard greens, grilled onions and provolone inside the tender, slightly domed flatbread, charred in spots from the flames. (Roll up your shirt sleeves and have a napkin handy; the hot handful oozes salsa verde when you bite down. Also, a glass of rosé turns the sandwich into happy hour, no matter the time of day you’re eating.) Even heartier is eggplant Parmesan, melting in texture and tangy with tomato sauce. Riding on top of the comforting rib-sticker is a piece of toasted baguette, one of a handful of breads that are baked here.
Customers order at a counter, take a tall marker to their perch and wait to have their food dropped off. As its Italian name suggests, this “little one” has just 20 seats inside. Brandwein says she wanted “a happy place” and she’s got it in the light-filled cafe. Tall, copper-wire stools hug a semicircular hammered copper ledge; more comfortable seating comes courtesy of cherry-red banquettes. Nice day? Fourteen umbrella-shaded seats are parked out front.
Amy Winehouse was singing “Rehab” when I last paid my respects. Her forceful “no, no, no” could have been directed at a panzanella that swapped hard peach slices for the usual tomatoes — the lone disappointment in multiple visits. Otherwise, it’s pretty much yes, yes, yes regarding the selections, which include smoky broccoli rabe spiked with chile flakes and a moist olive oil cake laced with lemon zest.
Given that her restaurants face each other, the chef can sit near the window of one and monitor the other. “I’m very lucky,” Brandwein says of her short commute between businesses. For the moment, she’s devoting much of her time to the younger establishment, teaching her cooks how to tend the oven and figuring out new ways to use it.
Color her creative. A bowl of fruit sprinkled with sugar and placed on the outer edges of the hearth results in a no-fuss jam, the perfect partner to the cafe’s daily changing toast.
963 Palmer Alley NW. 202-804-5713. piccolinadc.com. Sandwiches, salads and small plates, $5 to $14.50.