Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Piccolo (Portland, ME)

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Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2015!

Sorry it has been such a long while since my last post; it has been a busy season, between research papers, traveling to see family, and the holidays, and sadly, this has been the thing pushed to the back of my to-do-list.

But, I did have a couple of really great meals over the last few days of 2014, and Piccolo, a relatively new Portland restaurant, provided the best of them.  I went with a couple of my step-siblings and their father (not my step) and his wife, who very generously included me.  This was actually option B for us, and I am so glad we ended up there, as this was truly a spectacular experience all around.

Piccolo really lives up to its name, squeezed into a tiny space with only about twenty seats (if even that), but it does not feel cramped as you sit at the table, and the decor is simple but attractive.  The servers are all friendly, and we ended up having one of the owners, who is also the pastry chef, for our waitress, which was really great as she knew the menu so well.

We began with the "salumi" plate, which consisted of a couple of cured or salted meats (bresaola included, which was so rich and delicious I could have eaten it all night), some olives, and a few really fantastic pickled vegetables, my favorite of which were the beets.  Additionally, we ordered the "carotta" appetizer, which consisted of roasted carrots and a couple accompaniments, and which was a very good, albeit unspectacular, starter.

The entrees were where things really began to shine.  The six of us ended up ordering three different entrees, with each having two people picking it:  two "pasta fatta in casa;" two "calamarata," and two "del mar."  Everything was homemade, locally sourced if possible, and made with a care and technique that is rare to find.

The pasta (and the name literally means house-made pasta) was cavatelli, served with a lamb neck ragu, eggplant, orange, and pecorino, and other than my own dish, this was what I ate the most of, as one of the two who ordered it could not finish the rather large portion she was served.  The lamb neck was succulent and rich, the cavatelli themselves perfectly formed and cooked, and on the whole the dish was a delightful melange of flavors.

My dish, the calamarata, consisted of squid ink pasta (referred to as maltagliati on the menu, and seeming to be the ends of strips of papardelle) that was literally the best pasta I have ever had, the best cooked squid I have ever had (are we sensing a pattern?), charred tomato, peppers, and olives.  I'll admit, I missed the olives, but everything else was there in delicious abundance.  The pasta was perfectly al dente, the squid not even the littlest bit chewy (and anyone who has ever cooked that particular cephalopod knows how insanely difficult that is to achieve), and the tomatoes in particular was incredibly flavorful.  Everything just worked, so ridiculously well, that it has launched itself into the pantheon of best dishes I have ever had, a list that includes the short ribs I had at Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas a couple years ago.  I cannot recommend this particularly dish highly enough, even more so than the restaurant as a whole, which I recommend very, very highly.

The last dish was fish, the particular variety of which I cannot recall other than that it was a locally sourced whitefish (I do not think it was hake, but I may be wrong), which was perfectly cooked.  I only had a single bite, so I cannot speak to it more than to say my sister, who has impeccable taste, loved it.

For dessert, we had a funnel cake-like Italian fried dough that was really tasty, with a crunchy exterior and just a little bit of dough inside the thin strands to provide a little chewiness.  We also had a poached pear with chocolate mousse dish that was fine, but a little too rich for me; it was clearly well done in every way, just not my thing.

The wines we had were great (picked by my sister in the case of the white wine we had), and the owner was good enough to suggest a red wine that was significantly cheaper than what had been the previous choice.  That was just the beginning of the great service, and once again, I really cannot speak highly enough of this entire experience.  If you find yourself in Portland, this is a very reasonably priced, very well executed restaurant with spectacular food; just make a reservation, since there are so few seats.  The owners are both veterans of a Daniel Boulud restaurant in NYC, so they have the pedigree to explain their excellence.

I do not think vegetarians would be successful here, though they may be willing to make something special; if they do, I have no doubt it will be delicious.

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