Dining in Worcester — April 30, 2015

Worcester Magazine: Dining in Worcester — April 30, 2015

Piccolo’s a Welcome Treat Right from the Start

By Michael Parker

You know how, when you walk in somewhere for the first time, you immediately get a vibe, the feeling for the place? A sort of visceral sense that says, “Yes, this is it!” or “No, this is a pretender”? So it was for me and Piccolo’s, and independent Italian restaurant that has held its own Shrewsbury Street for 10 years and counting, far longer than I’ve been a proud citizen of Worcester (a mere seven months and counting).

My dining companion and I arrived a few minutes before our recent 6 PM Friday reservation, entering into the bar area as everyone who dines at Piccolo’s does, and right away I liked the feeling. No pretenders here, I thought.

We were greeted warmly by a friendly maître d’ who, informed of our reservations, invited us to sit in the bar area if it pleased us, or the dining room.

The bar area has several inviting tables and an appealing dark wood coziness, and we considered it for a moment. The room felt like something from the past, the 50s maybe, or the 40s. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see men in suits and fedoras drinking Manhattans. As captivating as it was, we opted for the dining room, and that proved a good choice.

We were assured into a room in which we were the only patrons. In general, I don’t like being the only diners in a restaurant. The expanse of empty tables, the lack of conversation, the sound of pots clanking from a distant kitchen all can make for a certain awkwardness. But like the immediate appeal of the bar area, the dining room was warm and welcoming. More dark wood, a pressed tin ceiling, Internet yet somehow spacious at the same time. Being the first customers did not prove awkward at all, as the dining room excluded the enthusiasm of diners past; you could almost hear convivial banter, impromptu toasts, the clink of cutlery on plates, honest laughter. This was obviously a room in which to eat.

But what about the food? A restaurant can look nice and have a good vibe, but if that food doesn’t deliver, then what’s the point?

My history with Italian food is spotty. I’ve had the usual rich, starchy pasta dishes, the ho-hum marinara, the whatever it is smothered in gooey cheese. But I’ve had the sublime to, when a chef pairs tradition with imagination, sources fresh, high quality ingredients and turns out innovative plates of tasty distinction. I’m happy to report Piccolo’s food is more the latter than the former, and certainly does justice to the congenial surroundings in which it’s served and eaten.

Our server, Don, did not hesitate when asked what the house specialties were. She said many people like the Polo Maria Teresa (which has the curious menu description of containing “some lobster”), and that quite a few regulars swear by the Veal Parmesan (Vitello Alla Parmigiana). Some, but not all of the pasta is homemade, she advised. In addition to the usual menu, a printout (which could have used a proofreader, “mushrooms”) listed the daily specials.

For appetizers, we tried the Crispy Oysters ($11.95) from the daily specials, and the Timballo Alla Paolo ($8.95) from the regular menu. Both were exceptional. The oysters arrived hot and crisp as promised; they were pleasingly plump, and with a squeeze of lemon, absolutely delicious. The Timballo (“rolled zucchini, asiago and ricotta… baked and served over marinara”) could have been one of those indistinct gooey somethings, instead was wonderfully light, fresh and flavorful. Both dishes were true appetizers, because after polishing them off with enthusiasm, our appetites were humming with anticipation of the main dishes.

The Vitello Parmigiana ($22.95) did not disappoint, and it is clear why regulars love it. A classic like Veal Parmesan doesn’t need dressing up or fancy presentation, it just needs to be done right. And so Piccolo’s is, with a golden-hued blanket of melted cheese atop a crisp-edged tender on a bed of marinara-tossed “maccheroni”. Pure Italian comfort food.

The Raviolio Ricardo ($18.95) allows for a little fancier presentation than the Veal Parmesan. Stuffed with ground veal and ricotta, and served with “fancy mushrooms” and strips of Persia tell, this dish to could have been leaden and bland. It was anything but.

The only off note of our meal was dessert. We chose to split the lemon blueberry cheesecake (described by our server as “refreshing” and costing $6.50), and I ordered a double espresso ($5.50). Oddly, the cheesecake was fairly dense, a surprise, given how the rest of the food had been remarkably light, and not really refreshing at all. The double espresso seemed more like regular coffee and in no way resembled the inky black richness I associate with that venerable Italian staple.

But these were small complaints in the scope of such a terrific meal at such a pleasingly and quirky restaurant. Quirky? There is a sense of humor at work here in addition to the serious busyness of producing top-notch food and providing a convivial atmosphere. One gets a hint of it on the menu (“Teamsters maccheroni”, “some lobster” ). At one point, a man in jeans and a busy print shirt made his way through the dining room and stopped at our table to inquire if everything was okay.

“Are you the chef?” I asked, somewhat naïvely.

“I’m the head dishwasher”, he replied.

Later, I asked our server who it was. “Oh, that was John Piccolo, the owner.” Head dishwasher indeed.

Total cost of dinner, with three glasses of wine, was $107.70 before tip.

4 stars food
4 stars ambience
5 stars service
4 stars value