Piccolo's in Columbia is an Italian restaurant that has the panache of a New York-style supper club.
As we entered, jazz musicians were playing softly and soulfully in the sunken central bar of the restaurant, and the lights were turned down low. Candles flickered behind frosted shades. It just took a little imagination to turn the traffic on nearby Snowden River Parkway into a street scene on New York's stylish Central Park West, especially with the trees outside wrapped in little white lights.
We loved the sleek, modern ambience of this restaurant and the admirable service we received. We loved the jazz pianist and saxophonist. We wish we could have loved the food more, because what was good was very good.
John Muncoso and his partners, John Lipirini, Bill Munn, Jim Eagan and Vince Guida, opened their Columbia restaurant nine years ago, and four years ago launched another in Fells Point. Homemade pasta is their specialty.
It may be hard to imagine ravioli and spaghetti as ethereal, cloudlike, magical. They were. The homemade pasta for the ravioli was rolled as thin as paper. Inside was a lovely cheese filling with the sharp accent of fine Parmesan. The simple side of homemade spaghetti that came with our veal Marsala was so delicate, it was a revelation. This is the kind of pasta that makes you want to book tickets for Florence or Rome.
Unfortunately, the veal Marsala itself was laden with a sauce that can best be described as brown gravy. Too much flour had been used, both to coat the tender cutlets and to thicken the sauce.
The Arborio rice in the seafood risotto had just the right texture -- slightly creamy but with a bit of bite. The seafood was cooked to just the right moment. There were a few jumbo sea scallops and shrimp, a half-dozen baby mussels, and a titanic-sized portion of calamari. How many squid tentacles are necessary in a dish this elegant?
One of the specials, fettuccine tossed with vegetables and shrimp in a tomato cream sauce, prompted a lot of discussion at our table. I liked the unusual combination -- the bitterness of the rapini, the tang of the green heirloom tomatoes, the earthy muskiness of the wild mushrooms. One dining companion most definitely did not.
Our appetizers didn't evoke that kind of criticism, but not many kudos, either. Capers were the dominant flavor on the bruschetta, an uninteresting starter we wouldn't order again. Fried calamari were encased in a wonderful batter, but they had been cooked a little too long.
Thin, salty prosciutto and potent salami would have been better in the antipasto pinwheels than the ham and other mild meats that were rolled inside. They were sitting on a garnish of arugula and other baby greens, with balsamic dressing and imported olives on the side.
The best of the lot was the Piccolo salad, with radicchio, endive, artichokes, radishes and red onions. It was simple, fresh and large enough for four to share.
Desserts, which are made by an on-site pastry chef, were more successful than our appetizers. We'd rate the creamy, sugar-crusted creme brulee first, followed by moist, not-too-sweet cheesecake, airy tiramisu, and a cannoli filled with cream that tasted like maraschino cherries.
Despite the flaws, I'd go back to Piccolo's in a New York minute for more of their magical pasta. Only next time, I'd go on Sunday, when pasta dishes are $9.95, or on one of the Mondays when the restaurant holds opera night. You can't beat an aria and Alfredo.
Where: 7090 Deepage Drive, Columbia
Hours: Open weekdays for lunch and dinner, and weekends for dinner
Prices: Prices: appetizers, $4-$8; entrees, $10-$20; major credit cards
Pub Date: 4/05/98