Storefront Sustenance

Piccolo Due’s location in a mini-mall belies its inviting atmosphere and long list of Northern Italian specialties



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Trying to pin a label on Piccolo Due, the year-old spinoff of Liberty’s popular Piccolo Paese, is daunting. At first blush, this interesting spot might seem an unlikely place to find quality Italian fare. But, as is often the case, first impressions are confounded by several disparate factors.

First there’s the location, on the commercial, restaurant-heavy strip of Route 211 in Middletown. Located in one corner of the Stoneridge mini-mall, it’s the sort of spot where you’d expect to find an Applebee’s or a Friendly’s, and the large neon sign declaring “Ristorante” wouldn’t be misplaced on such an establishment.

Inside, however, the lighting in the spacious storefront is warm and shadowy. The walls, red and glossy black, are softened by diaphanous yellow curtains, and the carpeted dining room floor promises (and delivers) a restrained sound level. The staff is dressed in black, yet the ambience isn’t Valley chic, or bistro, and definitely not Valley rustic. Let’s call it “fine dining” with a slightly formal European twist. Piccolo Due does things “just so,” carefully but without preciousness or pretension. As the dining room gradually filled on a recent Friday night, it became obvious that the restaurant doesn’t fit a particular niche. Diners arrived both dressed-up and in casual garb. There were obvious regulars, couples seriously gussied up for a date, birthday celebrators, and a smattering of families with well-behaved children. For all of them, Piccolo Due is accommodating. Maybe that’s the niche.

Within moments of being seated, you’ll be served with bread and olive oil for dipping. The bread was okay, the flavorful oil nicely spiced and tangy. There’s a small, good-enough wine list with several affordable offerings (we opted for a safe Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay at a not-bad $28). Judging from the animation of nearby diners, the colorful cocktails are potent as well as copious.

The regular menu is manageable and offers a good variety of Northern Italian standards. But before you get a look at it, your server will launch into a list of daily specials that’s long and involved enough to confuse any but the most attentive listener. The dishes are described, rather than named, so you’ll have to ask to discover that the chicken with this and that is, say, Piccolo Due’s version of Pollo Caruso. You’ll also have to ask about the price, which is a good idea since the specials generally hover at a price point higher than the dishes on the regular menu. Luckily, the waitresses are quite prepared to repeat themselves more than once, though they too get a little confused when called upon to depart from the script. The specials are mostly market-driven, a result of chef/owner Baco Vulaj’s finds on his daily forays to the Hunts Point market.

Presentation can be quirky. An appetizer of prosciutto and figs featured an unfurled carpet of prosciutto di Parma (the milder, pinker version) laid over a bumpy floor of perfectly ripe, halved figs. It was not beautiful to gaze upon, yet it was generous in size and — most importantly — delicious. The asparagus with Parmesan, however, came in a handsome, almost geometric plating, with the dainty asparagus tips shaped into a chevron, crisped with browned Parmesan (a tasty pairing), and accompanied by a big round of broiled portabella mushroom and an oblong of roasted red peppers floating in a tangy, deeply rich balsamic vinaigrette.

 

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