Piccolo's has long seemed like the quintessential red-sauce palace æ dark, dependable, but hardly inspiring. Though the gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi that greeted us upon entry hardly promised a new gastronomic experience on this occasion, the actual wine list was not the only surprise to come; one of us has lightened up over the years, and it's most likely the restaurant.
The Rocca della Macie '98 Chianti Riserva that we selected (from a wine list that includes some impressively heavy-hitting Brunellos and Barolos) wasn't calculated to match the appetizers; we simply thought we would like it. And we did. The funghi grattinati - a simple but satisfying plate of fresh mushrooms in a basic, coarse tomato sauce with oregano and a nice mantle of cheese - came the closest to being a partner. Calamari marinati, almost crisp in their bath of olive oil, lemon, and more oregano, were good enough to go it alone. And the mussels in white wine with fresh basil provided both good eating and great bread sopping. (Some may frown on this practice; although they may escape with shirts unstained, you can bet they haven't had nearly as much fun.)
Piccolo's pasta selection begins with the primal stuff: spaghetti with tomato sauce, meat sauce, and, yes, meatballs. It might also begin with a warning, courtesy of our waitress æ who turned out to be family: If you are fussy about al dente pasta, let them know in advance, the implication being that most of the restaurant's patrons might tend to prefer theirs a little on the soft side. (Since this admonition was after the fact, she must have sized us up in advance; the pasta seemed perfectly "to the tooth" to me.) Penne all'arrabbiata is a no-nonsense pasta plate that tests a restaurant's mettle; it's just quality canned tomatoes, crushed red pepper flakes, and a little garlic. (Olive oil is taken for granted, of course.) To this, Piccolo's adds finely chopped serranos, a simple enough gesture that lifts the flavors to a new level by adding a layer of sprightly heat to the red pepper's underlying spiciness. You'll like this one.
You should also like the equally simple but altogether different Veal Frangese, a straightforward scaloppine with a house-made veal stock reduction and light accents of lemon. It's an altogether delicate dish proving that lusty tomato sauces are not the only forte of the kitchen. But the evening's star, a plate that provoked "god, that's good" responses, was the stunningly sophisticated Red Snapper Piccolo. Betraying possible Sicilian influences (which, in turn, incorporate accents of North Africa), this impeccably cooked fish came swimming in a sauce of tomato, black olives, capers, pine nuts, and white raisins. Sweet plays with savory to the advantage of both in this rustic yet elegant dish; at $16.45 it was the evening's indulgence, but worth every penny.
There is a classic veal Marsala on the menu at Piccolo's, as well as a saltimbocca and a filet of beef pizzaiola. Other seafood dishes include snapper in several forms æ marinara and meunier among them æ mussels fradiavolo, and shrimp livornese. Chicken appears in guises such as rollatini and parmigiana. All come with the inevitable side of spaghetti in either garlic and butter or tomato sauce - both of which merit more than knee-jerk attention. The house salad is a simple affair with a good, creamy vinaigrette, and it, too, is a cut above the automatic offering of many other restaurants, Italian or otherwise. Only the desserts lacked luster. So we didn't try them. Besides, spumoni stains would have clashed with the spots already in place.