Piccolo’s executive chef, Damian Sansonetti, is chuckling in the background. Despite his efforts, I can hear him over the speakerphone.

I’ve just asked his wife, pastry chef Ilma Lopez, what inspired her to put smoked walnuts on a dark chocolate budino ($12) – an addition that pitch-shifts the tones of the custard-like dessert from bittersweet to the brink of savory.

It turns out, it was a spontaneous choice.

“Damian is laughing because he always calls me ‘Last-Minute Lopez.’ Forget Rachael Ray. He likes to say I can go from ‘No way’ to ‘Olé!’ in 30 minutes,” she says, laughing herself now. “Anyway, I totally stole the smoked walnut idea from one of his dishes at Chaval (the couple’s West End restaurant).”

Chard-and-ricotta-filled Caramelle pasta with brown butter and smoked walnuts. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

I ran into those same walnuts again on my second recent meal at Piccolo – a return visit to see how the 20-seat, Southern Italian restaurant had changed after a short winter hiatus. Over a week, Lopez and Sansonetti expanded their concise menu two-fold, adding a half-dozen small plates and snacks, as well as a roster of fresh pastas now available as full- and half-portions.

And this time around, I spotted the nuts in a savory dish (albeit one named for the wrapped confections they resemble). Here, the smoke and volatile oils add an almost bacon-like overtone to brown butter drizzled over chard-and-ricotta-filled Caramelle pasta ($13), a substantial appetizer-sized dish.

Fruitful crosstalk occurs not just from one menu to another, but across both of the couple’s Portland restaurants. Even though Chaval’s focus is firmly French and Spanish, its influence has bled over into Piccolo, and vice versa.

You can see it in Piccolo’s newly refreshed interior design, where cooler, whiter lighting underlines the more mature space’s passing resemblance to its much livelier sibling. Piccolo’s architecture itself now also tells a story of transition and boundary-breaking, with murals by Rebecca Volynsky that cross from wall to ceiling, giving the illusion of a camber overhead – or her arrangement of long rectangles and organic, seed-like glyphs into a dynamic form that evokes figure skaters gliding past the dining room, mid-arabesque.

While the restaurant remains as low-key and romantic as it was when this paper first awarded it four-and-a-half stars in 2013, the recent miniature revamp represents the first time that everything at Piccolo works in concert to showcase the personalities (separate and together) of Sansonetti and Lopez.

The dining room before service, with a mural by artist Rebecca Volynsky.

Take the Midollo (bone marrow, $15). At Chaval, topped with a French tartare of beef, it’s a standout. Piccolo’s version is a little less outré, but clearly dreamed up by the same brain. Sansonetti and chef de cuisine Luke Aberle roast oxtails, reserving the fat they release to paint triangles of griddled Southside Bakery sourdough. They then top the soft marrow with micro-celery and puffed farro that brings crunch to a dish whose usual Achilles heel is its texture.

Plating, too, is frequently expressed in reflexive verbs that bridge both menus and restaurants. In particular, the Del Mar ($29), a Sicilian-style scallop preparation that features sweet, licoricey fennel purée, pine nuts, swollen golden raisins and Browne Trading Company shellfish “so pristine, you cut them open and you can see them still quivering,” Sansonetti said. Arranged with orthogonal half-moons of delicata squash and frills of bracing frisée, the dish looks like a leisure-class version of Chaval’s autumn vegetable entrée.

When I asked about the similarities in plating, Lopez gave credit to Aberle. “He’s a super technician and he takes everything we tell him to heart. I guess Damian’s plating style is rubbing off on Luke,” she said. “That happens when you work with someone for a while. You start to take on their style sometimes.”

There are unique dishes on the menu at Piccolo, however, like Lopez’s fantastically tropical passionfruit cake ($8), a twist on the aforementioned budino, but this time the same thick custard is enhanced with a little cornstarch, then baked – not chilled – turning it into a stout sponge that tastes like the love child of a jiggly Japanese pancake and a clafoutis.

‘Nduja crostino. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Or the plain-sounding Funghi ($13). If you order it expecting a plate of roasted mushrooms, you’re in for a shock when the dish – essentially a bitter-greens salad of brown-butter-vinaigrette-dressed Castefranco radicchio and a gloriously runny sous-vide egg – arrives. Pierce the yolk, and it emulsifies with red wine vinegar to produce a second, Carbonara-like dressing for the greens and roasted mushrooms. An extraordinary dish.

Three snack-sized plates are just as good: skinny roasted eggplants the width of an ’80s necktie, topped with ricotta, orange and oven-roasted tomatoes ($8); crisp-fried lozenges of polenta ladled with slow-melting perlini (marble-sized balls of fresh mozzarella), an Italian riff on poutine ($6); and Sansonetti’s crostino of grilled sourdough slathered with a purée of house-made ‘Nduja and oven-dried tomatoes ($7). Be forewarned: Under the spreadable cured meat and tangy stracciatella di bufala runs an undercurrent of fiery heat from Calabrian chilis.

Best to have a glass of one of the restaurant’s new wines close to hand. My favorite is the Casa Comelli Refosco ($11), a funky, yet still-fruity red with enough acid structure to pair with most of the menu’s plates. And at $34 for a bottle, it is also a good bet if you and a guest plan to order a few of Piccolo’s handmade pastas.

Among these are square-cut, squid-ink spaghetti dishes that the kitchen changes frequently. On my first visit, the spaghetti nero was served with spigarello (a flat-leafed cousin of broccoli rabe) in a “Bolognese” of ground swordfish belly meat, all topped with green olives ($26). A decent dish, it lacked a hit of brightness to counteract the deep minerality of the squid ink.

Piccolo’s dining room seen through the window. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

I also found it on the tough side of “al dente,” which is the default style at Piccolo. Undercooking works best for pastas in wetter sauces that absorb more liquid at the table, like the strascinati ($17/$26): a flat-and-veiny, orechiette-esque shape. Finished in a sweet sugo of charred tomatoes and onions simmered for hours with pork shoulder from Breezy Hill Farm, it is a dish built to help you make it through the winter.

But if I were hibernating, I’d probably take Piccolo’s polpette alla Calabrese ($15) with me: three pork, beef and ‘nduja meatballs snuggled into a nest of the softest coarse-ground polenta I have ever eaten. To transform the jagged, golden shards of cornmeal, the kitchen starts the polenta in cold water and heats it slowly before letting the mixture bubble and sputter for the better part of 45 minutes. Sansonetti’s restraint with dairy might be his secret weapon. By going easy on the finishing touches of mascarpone and butter, where other chefs might not, he keeps the focus on the corn itself.

Over in the pastry kitchen, Lopez is engaged in her own dairy-driven metamorphosis. Here, she deploys a dazzlingly crystal-free fior di latte gelato ($6) as her agent of transmutation. She carefully lowers a single scoop into a chilled rocks glass, depositing it onto the surface of a shot of bitter, herb-forward Pasubio amaro – like making an affogato in reverse. As the gelato drools cream into the liqueur, it softens any harshness, leaving behind the aroma of pine needles and wild blueberries.

It is a pointless, chicken-and-egg question to try to work out who was first struck by the inspiration to use a bit of dairy as a catalyst for innovation, and in which kitchen it happened. Perhaps it’s best not to try.

“For Damian and I to work together, I don’t get into his menu, and he doesn’t get into mine,” Lopez said, teasingly. “And it works out. We’re still married!”

“There are absolutely things that Ilma has done that we’ve stolen (for the savory menu). One of the best things about our relationship is that we can have that collaboration, even if we’re not trying to. It just happens,” Sansonetti said.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

andrewross.maine @gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME


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