Facing Piccolo Ristorante from the sidewalk, you’re not necessarily overwhelmed by thoughts of old Italy. Hey, it’s Commercial Boulevard. Piccolo sits on the south side of Commercial just west of Bayview Drive - a locale that, architecture- and ambience-wise, is all suburban Fort Lauderdale. But a walk through the door – and better yet, a perusal of the menu and the wine list – might give that old familiar feeling to anybody who’s ever chucked a coin into the Trevi Fountain in hopes it would work its magic and bring you back to Rome.
This is an Italian restaurant. It is not, with all respect accorded to that noble establishment, an Italian-American restaurant. Chicken Parm might be lovely, but you won’t find it here. Instead you’ll find a young husband-and-wife team who are passionate about authentic Italian food paired with the right wine and served in an intimate, continental setting. Neither Andres nor Alison Avayú are from Italy – he’s Chilean, she’s from Kansas. But he’s worked in Italian restaurants for virtually his entire professional life, and the couple have traveled to the country a number of times. (Several of the lesser-known wines on the wine list are discoveries from one recent trip.)
Those pan-Italian travels are well represented in a menu that ranges from the blue-eyed north to the sun-scorched south. People sometimes ask what sort of Italian restaurant this is – after all, the cuisine from, say, the Abruzzo varies widely from that of Sicily. But Andres is not playing favorites. “He actually has picked dishes from each region,” Alison Avayú says. Favorite dishes include the amatriciana pasta. Andres adds caramelized onions to the dish of homemade marinara, crushed red pepper and pancetta to add a sweetness to a typically hot dish. There’s the polpette – chef whips his own basil ricotta to go with the homemade meatballs and tomato marinara. The bread is all homemade. The desserts … well, you get the idea. “All his desserts are homemade,” Alison says. “His cheesecake takes 10 hours – and you can taste it.”
With just a handful of tables, the cosy restaurant is meant to give a warm, familial vibe. But the Avayús are rigorously professional when it comes to the food and drink. They worked with an expert to devise a wine list and specific pairings for dishes that are in many cases Andres’ unique takes on more well-known Italian fare.
If you ask for a wine recommendation at Piccolo, you’re going to get something more specific than “I hear the merlot’s nice.” Likewise, Andres does not broker much change with his dishes. That basil whipped ricotta, for example, is in the polpette in a quite specific amount and presented in a certain way because Andres has designed it that way. If you’re not a fan of basil whipped ricotta, maybe try something else.
The restaurant’s intimate size means Andres can have that exacting control over what comes out of the kitchen, while Alison can get to know all the people who come through the door. There is a possibility that you could meet somebody who isn’t Alison or Andres in Piccolo. That would be Alison’s brother, who also works there. “You have that ultimate dining experience,” Alison says. “Like you’re dining in someone’s home. “We offer guests the opportunity to join the family.”
• 3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
• 1/4 cup pancetta
• 1/4 Spanish onion, sliced
• 1 cup tomato sauce
• 1/2 cup chiffonade basil
• 3 each cloves garlic, sliced thin
• 1/4 cup white wine
• 1 tsp. butter
• 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1/4 cup chicken stock
• 1/4 cup brown sugar
• 1 serving fusilli pasta
• A sprinkle of Parmesan cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste
Put 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil in a hot pan. Add sliced onions and let them caramelize over medium heat.
In a separate pan, add 1 tbsp olive oil and the pancetta. Sauté over low to medium heat until crispy and light in color, and set aside.
In the onion pan, once they have gotten a little bit of color, add balsamic vinegar and let it reduce slowly. Then add salt and brown sugar and let them caramelize on a low heat.
In yet another hot pan, add remaining olive oil, sliced garlic and crushed red pepper. Sauté for a minute, letting the pepper toast. Add white wine, then the chicken stock, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, basil, pancetta and black pepper.
Boil your desired pasta according to instructions, or al dente. When it's done, add it to the sauce and sprinkle in some Parmesan cheese, and enjoy.
Note: The pancetta and caramelized onions can be prepared a couple of days in advance if desired.