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Classic Italian

Once, when in Rome, we did as all good Romans and touristas have done for 500 years or so, and still do.

We took an espresso in front of Bernini’s thrilling Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the grand theater of Piazza Navona.

After an hour, we meandered out the south end past Della Porta’s fantastical Fontana del Moro and onto a narrow winding street. There, we encountered another wondrous vision – dust-covered laborers, and others, filing into a door that turned out to be trattoria dal paradiso!

Jammed and hardly a trattoria, but rather a long, very narrow establishment, with a bar/counter on the left and a couple of tiny tables to the right, everyone standing, one guy behind the bar slinging beers and working two ancient, smoking toaster ovens making panini hand over fist. We sat at a table and stayed for two hours, absorbing a real workman’s bar, calcio on the little black-and-white telly with aluminum-encased antennae. Heaven.

We went back just about every day for the rest of that week, even for just a Peroni.

We share this memory simply because we recall it every time we pop into Piccolino Italian Restaurant, which we have been doing a lot lately.

No, it’s not just off the Piazza Navona, but in a big expanse of asphalt next to a self-car wash, a Giant gas station and a mini-mart at Agua Fria and Siler Road. And, yes, it can be a little disorienting hearing Spanish in an Italian joint, but once you’ve ordered, you’re over it.

In fact, even before you order, you are presented with a small bowl of warm marinara sauce and a basket of warm, buttered herb bread – Italian for “chips and salsa.” The Good Doctor, back on the beat, accompanied us to Picco’s for lunch and, seated at our plastic, black-and-white-check-covered table in the no-nonsense, well-fenestrated establishment, said, “I love this place. It reminds me of a great little place in Rome, or anywhere, really!”

And he is exactly right. Piccolino, how do we love thee, let us count the ways?

First, the salads and appetizers are killer, and the Good Doctor proclaimed his Calamari Fritti ($8.95) better than any he’s had in town. A little crispy, maybe, but primo. Second, let’s talk pizza. Easily said, not so easily done. Piccolino’s plain cheese number is thin crust (order it slightly crispy), not greasy, superb and an even better value (10-inch pie, $6.99/16-inch pie, 12.95), and more toppings and variations than you can imagine.

Let’s talk al forno (oven-baked) dishes and begin with a superb Lasagna, vegetarian or with meat sauce ($10.99), or the truly tasty Lasagna Bolloco ($11.99) with chicken, green chile, provolone cheese, mozzarella and Alfredo sauce! The Cannelloni ($10.99) is classic.

Pastas (gluten-free pasta is available) are a choice of spaghetti, linguine, angel hair, penne or fettucini topped Marinara style ($9.99), with meatballs ($11.50), Arabiatta ($9.99) and, my favorite, add meat sauce for another dollar or so, Bolognese ($11.50), and many more variations.

The great thing is – and this is a pet peeve – you are given a suitable serving of pasta with your choice of sugo. What is the cheapest ingredient in any pasta dish? The pasta, correct. Yet, why is it that most restaurants offer pastas that are all sauce and an insufficiency of pasta? Not at Piccolino. A proper portion of pasta for all plates!

We have barely scratched the surface of this most estimable of Italian menus this side of Mulberry St., Little Italy. And we haven’t even mentioned the Ravioli choices or the sandwiches. But we’ve always known that if you can do the basics in an Italian, or any, restaurant, you will succeed at the more complicated dishes, and there are a number on Picco’s amazing list. Oh, and did we mention that you can call in your order and drive around and pick it up at a window on the east side of the building? You can.

Inexpensive, and the best Italian fare in town for our lira.

We note that there is a sign proclaiming Piccolino “Best of” in Santa Fe, but it doesn’t say “Best” of what … so we are nominating it for best little Italian restaurant in Rome!