In this Venice, hip-hop, not opera, wafts from open balconies; young lovers savor matching tattoos, not romantic gondola rides; and chiaroscuro effects illuminate graffiti, not gothic facades. Which is why it is surprising to find a casually elegant Italian osteria tucked amidst the fanfare of cheap thrills and chilidogs.
Located at 5 Dudley Avenue, a narrow pedestrian-only street that empties into the boardwalk, Piccolo Ristorante offers flavorful food that sticks to its Northern Italian origins, with a modest nod to innovation and the California food scene. A small, intimate space—where candlelight flickers off white linen, dark wood molding, and pale walls displaying Italian landscapes in crisp black and white—at first glance seems like just another romantic dining spot. Yet this is exactly the charm of this understated restaurant: neither the food nor the ambiance resorts to theatrics, letting food quality, superlative service, and simple exposition delight its guests.
In the four years since founders Stefano de Lorenzo and Antonio Mure opened Piccolo, it has passed through numerous Italian hands. Mainly because just a year after opening, this talented team shifted their focus to a new venture, La Botte, a one star Michelin restaurant in Santa Monica. Since then, a revolving staff has run Piccolo including three chefs that have all since departed to open their own restaurants: Michael Wilson of Wilson in Culver City, Alberto Lazzarino of Melograno in Hollywood and co-founder Antonio Mure, who fully resigned from the partnership to open Il Carpaccio in Pacific Palisades.
It would seem all these changes would wreak havoc on a menu's continuity, but the Northen Italian influence of Mure’s original recipes still remains, not to mention some of his original dishes such as: Calamari alla Griglia, Seared Scallops and Quaglia Croccante. The current, fairly new, Executive Chef is Roberto Ivan. Ivan is an Italian native from the Friuli-Vento border, perfectly fitting with the restaurant’s long term orientation to Northern cuisine.
Arriving at Piccolo is an event in itself, a tiny spot wedged between the boardwalk and a narrow, one-way street. As I called out directions to the confused member of my party who drove, we whizzed past Dudley Ave, turning on Dudley Ct, putting us a block south. To avoid another trip around, several of us got out of the car as our driver circled again. There was no valet and since it was futile trying to find street parking in this area (even though it was winter), he paid for public beach parking.
Approaching this special, little, twinkling storefront we got a glimpse of the ocean and magnificent sunset, a salt-water breeze bellowing under our coats on this slightly chilly night. Twilight shined a complimentary glow on the two outdoor tables that bookmarked the entrance, under a black awning adorned with soft, little lights. The small, one-room restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but it was early and we were lucky enough to find an open table.
The charming host purred "buona sera" in perfect Italian among the guests, a mix of couples on romantic dates and sophisticated locals swirling wine in large glasses. Of the fifteen tables in the restaurant, we chose a table near the back, avoiding the chill that crept in anytime someone opened the door. In this cozy space, one is never too far from the open kitchen, but our table had the added advantage of being wildly close to the magnificent flames that would periodically explode out of Chef Ivan’s saucepans.
The moment we took off our coats, our host gave us menus and the extensive wine list. After ordering a bottle of ’04 Rosso Di Montalcino, a peppery, full bodied Super Tuscan with an amazingly smooth finish, a basket of bread arrived, with handfuls of hard Grisini Torinesi, a popular Torino breadstick, sticking out over house-baked bread. The fragrant and sharp smells wafting from fat slices of semi-crusty olive loaf enticed me. Its dough had a light wheat flavor, complimented by large chunks of high quality black and green olives, giving it a perfectly salty, wonderfully complex taste. I skipped dipping it in the pool of olive oil that was poured on to small plates. The other bread was traditional panne rustica, slightly chewy and more airy, with hard crust and golden center.
The menu was rather extensive, striking a balance between tradition and innovation, allowing guests to build a proper Italian meal or try new taste combinations. The menu was broken up into traditional categories. First, antipasti: either warm, caldi, or cold, freddi, seven each. The most popular cold appetizer, house cured duck prosciutto, wasn't available, but overall, the selection of appetizers was well thought out, ranging from adventurous dishes like tongue and pressed cod roe, bottarga, to more common roasted beets or seared sea scallops
The most popular warm appetizer was Calamari, and it was easy to see why. In the sunken center of a large plate sat a mound of shiny, white, slightly charred calamari, resting on a dark green bed of Swiss chard, a great traditional Northern Italian combination. At first bite, my mouth was alive with the grilled calamaretti, babies that are tastier and usually tenderer, although some in our batch were dry, a few seconds overcooked. The Swiss chard was fabulous.
Next was primi, which traditionally is a starch dish: pasta, rice or polenta. The menu included a quail sausage risotto, butternut squash gnocchi, and six pasta choices, none of which included dry pasta. They were all strongly anchored in Northern tradition.
The Risotto Con Salsiccia Di Quaglia resembled a “rice dish,” because the grains were separated and not as creamy or integrated as traditional risotto. The starch taste overwhelmed the quail; however, overall it was good.
The Agnolotti di Manzo, pockets of flattened pasta filled with beef tenderloin, achieved a much better balance among its components, the beef held its own against a delightful tomato sauce and sharp pecorino.
The Garganelli Neri All'Aragosta was another well-conceived, intensely flavored, satisfying dish. The lobster meat was exquisite, too bad there were only a few bites, we could have eaten it all night. The fresh garganelli, pasta tubes, two inches long by quarter inch diameter dyed black from squid ink, were very well made. The lobster reduction sauce was drizzled atop the pasta, but having been done so just before it was served, it didn’t cling well to the pasta. The best bite, other than the lobster itself, was actually the last few pieces of pasta that had been sitting in sauce, soaking up intense flavors.
There were seven second course menu items, including a very popular Northern Italian dish of roasted rabbit, white Tuscan beans, and pancetta. There were also hearty international comfort foods easier on the American palate such as tasty top sirloin over baked potato chips and pan fried fillet mignon, accompanied by roasted eggplant pesto sweetened by sun-dried tomatoes and almonds. The daily fish special was halibut with porcini sauce and lentils.
Of the second courses that we tried, there was no question that my favorite was Agnello Al Rabarbaro, slow roasted lamb shank set on a bed of rhubarb alongside a small saffron risotto cake. The lamb was cooked perfectly, allowing the sauce to gain depth and intensity of flavor, ranking it up with the best Italian ragu sauces I have ever had. This was a dish to savor, like fine chocolate, resting it in your mouth, slowly allowing your taste buds to absorb the full measure of the dish. First rhubarb, then a complex set of vegetables, then lamb in a long, beautiful finish. As the flavors diversified in each bite, the velvety texture of the shank gave it a beautiful send-off. The accompanying saffron risotto was a good version of risotto a la Milanese, and unlike the other risotto, this was very creamy. Bravo!
As our meal wound down, we decided to sit and savor the beautiful flavors dancing in our mouths rather than disrupt them with dessert. Now the restaurant was filling up, and several couples were standing near the back, crowded uncomfortably around open bottles of wine or champagne. Besides the wonderful ambiance and amazing dishes of this unassuming, cozy dining spot I was also impressed with its high quality of service. It was utterly astounding. None of the staff was pushy on the wines or entrees, and they anticipated every one of our needs, from maintaining our constantly full breadbasket and wine glasses to correctly observing that we wanted the meal presented family style. This was the epitome of great service; they knew what to do and did it right and on time. Overall my experience at Piccolo was amazing, and at this price point, it would be hard to find a more satisfying neighborhood osteria unless, of course, you leave Venice for Venice—Italy that is.