I hadn’t been to Piccolo, in the upper reaches of Huntington, since its dining room got a facelift about a year ago. Gone was the ponderous drapery and dated decorative paint effects that rendered most of the wall space marbled, stuccoed or garlanded. Now the dining room features a sleeker, more contemporary décor in shades of wood and cream.
I wish the kitchen had been subject to the same makeover; our meal was, at best, undistinguished, starting with the bread basket that contained the same perfunctory seeded “Italian” loaf and crackers that greet diners at thousands of less ambitious (and less expensive) local trattorias.
Piccolo’s regular menu hews pretty close to Italian-American standards, starting with Caesar and tricolore salads and marching dutifully through fried calamari, pasta alla vodka and then scampi, scarpariello and scaloppine. The daily specials, on the other hand, evince regional Italian, New American and bistro influences, to wit: beet and goat-cheese salad, tuna tacos, boneless shortribs with horseradish cream and, most troublingly, blackened pork tenderloin with molasses sweet potatoes.
My own personal preference is for small menus that display a focused point of view, but I can appreciate variety if it is done well. At this meal it was not.
We chose our starters from the specials menu. Arugula and fennel salad had only the faintest wisp of mandolined fennel, was garnished with stingy little cubes of ricotta salata and mandarin orange segments and then tossed with something that tasted only of sweet. The exuberance of the salad’s Southern Italian inspiration was nowhere in evidence—the bitterness of the arugula, the almost medicinal anise flavor of the fennel. Where was the fruity olive oil, the spark of fresh lemon? Why not use juicy slices of blood orange instead of those airless little wedges of mandarin?
My half portion of mezza-rigatoni was similarly misconceived. Piccolo’s menu highlights its “hand made pasta,” but these little tubes were no better or worse than De Cecco’s. Nothing the waiter told me prepared me for the soupy amalgam of pasta, shrimp and tasteless calamari in a criminally undersalted broth. And what accounted for the pieces of wilted escarole?
Our main courses came off the regular menu. Seafood Fra Diavolo over linguine was abundant and serviceable. The piquant sauce was, hands down, the tastiest thing in the whole meal. My veal saltimbocca consisted of nicely fried scaloppini tucked into well-seasoned spinach, but was undone by a too-sweet brown sauce with neither freshness nor depth.
Service, as ever, was exceedingly friendly and efficient. Piccolo’s wine list is also uncommonly good, with a nice selection of wines by the glass. I should also commend one element of the specials menu: it is printed so that patrons can see the prices—required by both Suffolk and Nassau county laws that are regularly flouted.
Piccolo is at 215 Wall St., Huntington, 631-424-5592.