Ilma Lopez is busy.
She greets diners at the door, talks about the menu, pours water, suggests wine, serves bread—all with a warm smile and a friendly, confident manner. When you dine at Piccolo, it’s evident from the moment you enter you are in good hands. The place is tiny, offering a convivial atmosphere. Decor is simple, all warm wood and wine racks with casual place settings. You can lean back and relax and that’s exactly what my companion and I do on a Tuesday night.
Lopez is half of the husband-wife team that owns and runs Piccolo. She is the front-of-the-house face, but she’s also the pastry chef, whipping up ethereal desserts to top off your meal while the other half, chef Damian Sansonetti, is in the kitchen preparing for this evening’s guests. Originally from Venezuela, Lopez and Sansonetti met when they were both working at top New York restaurants. The dream of having a place together has come true at Piccolo.
Lopez and Sansonetti are committed to giving diners an authentic, unexpected taste of southern and central Italy, specifically from the Calabria and Abruzzi regions. These are the areas of Sansonetti’s grandparents, where current trends of “nose-to-tail” cooking and local, seasonal ingredients have always been common practice. Diners who have preconceived notions of southern Italian cooking, associating it mostly with red sauce, will be in for a surprise. Chiles and anchovies are used for seasoning as are herbs such as mint and dill. “People don’t realize these are typical of the area,” says Sansonetti. “But the landscape influences the cuisine there.”
To demonstrate his point, Sansonetti serves us a colorful dish of pickled sardines on a pool of golden saffron aioli. “Saffron might not be associated with Italian cuisine,” explains Sansonetti. “But it thrives in the hot, dry climate of southern Italy.” The fish is finished with a few pickled carrots, tiny mushrooms, and some local sugar snap pea shoots, plus a dusting of chile and chopped pistachios. The result is bright and tangy—a vibrant mix of natural flavors. Lopez stops by with some tender foccacia that she made to dip into olive oil from Abruzzi. It’s impossible to stop at one slice and we finish it in moments.
Everything is made in-house, including the creamy, chewy Apulian cheese called stracciatella presented in a small ceramic pot from Italy. Finished with a grating of cured egg yolk and extra-virgin olive oil, the cheese is served with ultra-thin and crispy pieces of Sardinian flatbread known as carta musica or “sheet music.” I’m told that’s because the dough is rolled so thin that it’s possible to read sheet music through it. This is a perfect starter with a few sips of Statti, a light white wine from Campania.
If there’s one item that will never leave the menu due to popular demand, it’s the cavatelli with lamb neck ragu. It takes three days to make it, including simmer time and a full day to let the ragu rest and the flavors meld. Sansonetti showed us his vintage cavatelli maker from the 1960s. It’s the same type that both of his grandmothers used to make the small pasta. The cavatelli, with its rustic irregular shape picks up all the flavors—the savory lamb and salty olives, the sharpness of the pecorino, and the surprise finish of a little orange zest. Every bite holds a unique flavor combination and I now understand the dish’s popularity.
Lopez pours us a glass of barbera to drink with the lamb ragu. She works closely with five different wine distributors, who bring in the “quirky, funky wines that go with our food.” She and Sansonetti along with the team of servers and kitchen staff, taste it all, and choose a variety that is unavailable at any other Maine restaurant. They love to make suggestions. “Just tell us what you like and what you’re eating,” says Lopez. “Then we’ll find you something just right.”
We finish up with one of Lopez’s dessert creations, a light as air lemon custard with fresh strawberries and a red wine and cherry reduction. It’s finished with a bit of smoked sea salt and basil. Again, it’s the unexpected ingredients that elevate the dish to another level.
I hope to return soon for one of Piccolo’s Sunday Suppers. Sansonetti presents tasting menus then, each one tailored for the specific requests of the lucky diners. Let him know your preferences or dietary restrictions in advance and you’ll have an experience like no other. Diners peer over at each other’s plates, asking about special recipes and making new friends.
“We want to create an experience with atmosphere and food so that the whole restaurant could be picked up and dropped into a piazza in southern Italy and nothing would feel out of place,” Sansonetti tells me. I believe he has succeeded.
111 Middle St. | Portland | 207.747.5307 | piccolomaine.com