By Bernie Whitmore
Piccolo’s Italian Restaurant,
157 Shrewsbury Street, Worcester
The Shrewsbury Street dining experience takes many forms, but it may reach its highest point at Piccolo’s Italian Restaurant. Once you’ve been seated in Piccolo’s dining room, you’ve entered another time and place. Formerly the counting-room of the Banco Di Napoli, its wood-paneled walls are hung with tributes to opera as if to underscore the musical soundtrack. An outrageously ornate tin ceiling gleams with light cast by glass globes shaped like bunches of fruit or flowers.
As much as those chain restaurants may try, there’s no way they can match this level of retro-décor. But that’s just the beginning. After reading the menu and wine list I realized Piccolo’s cuisine, Italian with Sicilian influences, is as unique as their funky dining room. If their kitchen can actually deliver on this promise of bold flavor, it would be a memorable evening.
Melissa, our server, got the meal started with a basket of warm bread and garlicky olive oil for dipping. After taking our entrée orders she helped with salad and wine selections. We only strayed from the main menu far enough to select one of the evening’s special appetizers, Arancini di Riso. A Sicilian specialty, arancini are rice balls, each about the size of a casino token. Outside they were golden-crunchy with bread crumbs, inside the al dente rice was creamy with parmesan cheese and flecked with parsley and bits of prosciutto.
The order of four Arancini was ideal for sharing and served with a small bowl of warm marinara sauce. Pacing between courses at Piccolo’s is unhurried; fast-food is a distant and alien concept. But soon enough Melissa returned with our Caesar Salad.
Piccolo’s Caesar could very well be the best in town. We shared a meal-sized salad ~ any less and we’d be scrambling to snag the last leaf of romaine, each crease of which was evenly coated with dressing rich in parmesan cheese and balanced notes of lemon, anchovy and garlic. The salad was draped with fillets of white anchovy, much softer and milder than those salty bristles you so often encounter. Even the croutons were exceptional, providing an airy, buttery crunch.
Did this lead to ramped up expectations? You bet, but then I’ve never left Piccolo’s without being impressed. Tonight’s entrees were no less exceptional…
My friend, usually a fan of steak or veal, surprised me with his choice: Spaghetti alla Bechéra. Stunning both visually and in robust flavor, this dish of red wine spaghetti and crumbled sausage was extraordinary. The fresh-cut spaghetti was scarlet-red, steeped in the flavors of roasted garlic, plum tomatoes and that occasional bit of fennel from the sausage. But it was the spicy-hot sausage that pumped flavor into this dish, chunks of it in every forkful.
He matched it with a glass of Apothic Red wine, a blend of syrah, merlot and zinfandel grapes. Its velvety-smooth intensity of dark fruit and chocolate tones is one of the few wines capable of taming Spaghetti alla Bechéra. Its lush flavors can prove addictive; you’ll want to share a full bottle.
My entrée, Gamberi Julianna, showcased five jumbo sautéed shrimp served over twisted strands of pasta tossed with baby spinach leaves in creamy pink vodka sauce. When roasted, garlic becomes creamy-soft and sweet; Piccolo’s chef uses it to great advantage in Juliana, giving the dish a deeper flavor dimension. But the real stars of my meal were the shrimp; their delicate flavor and texture are rarely encountered in all the hastily brought-to-market “product” out there. I couldn’t help remarking, “Oh! I almost forgot what really good shrimp tasted like!”
But superlatives and compliments accompany each course at Piccolo’s. Even our dessert, Molten Chocolate Cake, has become a staple item on menus everywhere. But Piccolo’s was double sized and served with a large dollop of whipped cream. No, not that foamy sprayed-on stuff, this cream had been pushed all the way down the line to just short of butter.
All right, I’m a fan of Piccolo’s Italian Restaurant. The dining room. The soundtrack. The service and pacing. But most of all, the cuisine. This is Italian with heart and soul.