SANTA FE, N.M. — A plate of spaghetti, a glass of wine and thou. It’s still enough for most of us, and even in Santa Fe we can still get it at Piccolino, a small, friendly Italian-American place on Agua Fria Street.
Best of all, the spaghetti and the wine, as well as dozens of other classics ranging from deep-fried calamari and braised lamb shank to chicken parmigiana and pasta every which way, are reasonably priced.
For struggling romantics in Santa Fe, that’s saying a lot. Throw in excellent service and a fast-moving kitchen staff and it doesn’t get much better.
Not surprisingly, Piccolino was nicely busy without being crazy the weeknight we visited. We were promptly seated and a basket of warm, light focaccia bread, redolent of basil, was promptly delivered. The only surprise was the dipping sauce – a little bowl of equally light and simple marinara.
Munching on that, we considered Piccolino’s extensive menu. Appetizers seemed obligatory, and there were nearly two dozen options, counting salads, Italian-style antipasti and soup. We decided on deep-fried calamari and zucchini sticks ($8.99 and $5.25 respectively) and later regretted only that there were not more of us at the table so we could have sampled the salads and soups.
But fried calamari is a favorite, and none of us has attempted deep-fried stuff in decades, so we hankered after something out of the home-cooking routine. The calamari were excellent – light and crispy batter swathed tender squid.
Could it have been cooked a little more, we wondered, given the light color of the batter? No, we concluded, because the squid itself was just perfectly done.
The dipping sauce was more of the marinara, laced this time with fresh basil. The same accompanied the zucchini sticks, another example of deep-fried perfection. The zucchini was very fresh and al dente, and the batter as crispy light as the calamari. Both dishes emerged from the kitchen within minutes of our order, piping hot.
One of my guests chose cannelloni ($10.50) off the baked-dish section of the menu. The big pasta tubes had been stuffed with ground beef and spinach, with a little onion and, interestingly, carrot. More of that marinara sauce smothered them, and the lot was topped with cheese. Standard, but very good. Lasagna, ziti and a couple of eggplant dishes are other baked options.
I chose the seafood linguini ($15.50) and it too was very nice. The linguini was perfectly al dente, laced with butter and white wine, with scallions and a goodly handful of large shrimp and plump scallops scattered over the top.
I appreciated that the shrimp and scallops had been separately sautéed and were just cooked. Parmesan cheese was already on the table, but unnecessary. A simple but satisfyingly light dish.
My other guest chose chicken Piccolino ($12.25), chicken sautéed with mushrooms and red and green peppers in a buttery bland sauce. It was mild and good, but inexplicably paired with a side of spaghetti topped with more of that marinara, making for a messy combination on the plate.
Which leads me to a piece of advice about dining at Piccolino: It might be a good idea to go there several times to figure out which are their best dishes. We were intrigued by the “chopped antipasti” offered under salads, for example. We’d love to know if that’s what it sounds like: a pile of salamis, olives and cheeses, chopped up and (possibly) served over lettuce.
An order of one of the night’s specials, braised lamb shanks, appeared on an adjacent table. Accompanied by risotto and what looked like sautéed spinach, we judged it, at least by appearance, to be a winner and were sorry we hadn’t tried it. Veal and seafood also are available with un-pasta sides. And Piccolino serves sandwiches and pizza. In short, this is a menu to explore.
We also noted that all of our selections were served in large quantity – easily enough, even for hearty appetites, for take-home boxes.
Surfeit aside, we were determined to see the meal through to dessert. Piccolino’s selection has some decidedly un-Italian offerings, including pecan and coconut pies, tres leches cake and flan (most $4.99, and mostly made in house). But there was the Italian classic tiramisu. We opted for that and a slice of pecan pie.
The pie was unusual – somehow the crust seemed to be in the middle, the filling underneath and the nuts in a crunchy layer on top. We liked it particularly because it wasn’t as cloyingly sweet and syrupy as most versions of this American classic.
I liked the tiramisu, layers of cake and creme, laced with coffee and sprinkled with chocolate. My guests thought it undistinguished. Well, all the more of it for me!
Piccolino is something of a rarity on the Santa Fe restaurant scene: It serves satisfying, if familiar, ethnic food in an unpretentious atmosphere at reasonable prices. Its customers, as far as we could tell, were mostly local, and there were several tables of regulars who regarded the staff as family, a feeling that was reciprocated. We’ll be back.