SANTA FE, N.M. — Most cities with a modest level of sophistication and a decent restaurant scene have two types of Italian restaurants: those with fancy, gourmet-influenced cuisine and the casual, less costly, more traditionally American version. Piccolino is in the traditional camp with a rib-sticking menu of pasta, pizza, chicken and veal dishes and a big selection of house-made desserts.
I recently ate at the Piccolino in Eldorado, open less than a year, and found it strongly average and fairly busy. Then I revisited the original Piccolino on Agua Fria Street, noting that it has a larger menu, better food and service, and a core of dedicated customers.
Both of these restaurants get a star for convenience and for keeping the cost of dining relatively low. The Eldorado restaurant, in the Agora Center, saves those who hunger for lasagna or chicken parmigiana a trip to Santa Fe. The Agua Fria restaurant offers family-friendly, freshly cooked meals with easy access and parking.
At the Eldorado restaurant, we ordered a cup of minestrone, which tasted like a fresh vegetable soup, and two selections from the specials menu. The fresh, cedar planked baked salmon arrived with a nice assortment of fresh veggies. The special chicken dish included sausage and potatoes, all served over spaghetti. Both entrees were filling, if not memorable. Service was a bit slow and the restaurant moderately busy. The ambiance at Eldorado is shopping plaza storefront.
After that, I realized I hadn’t eaten at the mother ship, the original Piccolino for years, so (different) friends and I stopped in for dinner and also for lunch. In general, the food was consistent but, like the Eldorado restaurant, under-seasoned for my taste. Both are small and not overly fussy in décor or ambiance.
My favorite of the dishes I ordered was the veal picatta ($14.99). The lemon caper sauce had just the right tartness and the meat was tender. I loved the side vegetables: zucchini, carrots, broccoli and yellow squash, served hot and still a bit crisp. A generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese from the container on the table improved the bland side of spaghetti with meatless tomato sauce. You can also get chicken picatta here.
I liked the “Seafood Santa Fe” ($15.50). I was surprised at the soft, tender and delicious scallops and shrimp that sat atop a big serving of fettuccine. The addition of a few pretty green peas, sun dried tomatoes and slivered garlic to the light tomato sauce gave the dish needed zip. I ate what was left the next day, and the sauce improved with age. The “Santa Fe” in the name comes from green chile, but I couldn’t taste it.
One day’s salad special was fresh spinach with a small bit of crisp pancetta, many chopped mushrooms, candied walnuts and balsamic dressing which came on the side without asking ($8.99). I liked it except for the sticky walnuts.
I enjoyed both soups I sampled ($3/cup). The clam chowder, hot and rich, reminded me of potato soup with a nice bit of celery and a decent addition of minced clams. The “Tuscan Wedding Soup” had a flavorful broth filled with carrots, beans and other veggies and topped off with a pair of meatballs. The meatballs however, had been created with too many seasoned bread crumbs to too little beef. The same flavor appeared in the meat in the “Baked Ziti” ($9.99), a beautiful casserole of sturdy tube-shaped noodles in a light tomato sauce topped with melted cheese. My friend took most of it home — it must have been a quart of food. She said she planned to add some garlic and Italian seasonings to perk it up a bit.
The ziti came from the oven, the Al Forno section of the menu, which also includes other classic baked entrees such as meat, vegetarian or green chile chicken lasagna. One of the daily specials was seafood cannelloni, two long pasta tubes stuffed with a seafood mixture and baked in sauce. I didn’t try them, but acquaintances I ran into at Piccolino gave them a big thumbs up, and the dish looked delicious.
Among the hot and cold sandwiches, I tried the warm sausage and pepper sandwich with the choice of soup or salad ($8.99). I enjoyed the sausage cut into rounds, simmered in a tomato sauce, served up with red and green peppers and onion. I can picture this sauce on hardy pasta, too.
Speaking of pasta, Piccolino has a big assortment of noodles and sauces. If you’re looking for something different, try “Pasta Bolloco”: fettuccine Alfredo with green chile. The fried calamari appetizer gets raves from folks I know who say it’s the best in town.
We ended the meal on an agreeable note. The lemon meringue pie ($4.25) had a slightly tart lemon filling, a light crust and a meringue topping with a bit of a suntan from the oven. Piccolino offers at least a dozen other desserts, most of them made in house.
If you’re looking for a spot for cheese-rich comfort food, Americanized Italian, Mom-n-Pop ambiance, Piccolino fills the gap. And the generous servings mean dinner here might also be lunch the next day!