"Meet me at Piccolo's." It's the opening line of a screwball comedy set on Long Island where all the characters wind up at different restaurants. There are 10 restaurants on Long Island with "piccolo" or "piccola" in their names, four on Jericho Turnpike alone.
Piccolo. It means "little" in Italian. A perfectly good name for a restaurant but hardly a great one. What accounts for all this picco-biquity? Is it a case of picco-chronicity? Or picco-plagiarism? Months of research have led me to the conclusion it is neither, that every one of these restaurants comes by its picco-linity honestly.
After years -- in some cases, decades -- of coexisting, the men who own the various Piccolos take the inevitable mix-ups in stride. "It happens all the time," said Tony Lubrano, second-generation owner of Piccola Bussola. "When I take an order for takeout, I always say, 'You know you're calling the Piccola Bussola on Jericho in Mineola, right?' Sometimes people will show up for a party but we have no reservation for them. 'You want to be down the road at Piccolo's,' I'll tell them. Or Piccolo's will call me: 'Do you have some people there waiting for the Smiths? Can you send them over?'"
2770 Sunrise Hwy., Bellmore, 516-679-8787
What's in the name In the beginning there was Piccolo Pizza and Pasta. In 1979, Carmelo Valenti opened up Long Island's first Piccolo and piccolo it was. "It was a pizza place with 10 tables in back," said Valenti's son, Tommy. At the time, Carmelo's brother, Nick, was working at the big-time restaurant group Restaurant Associates and he suggested the name "Piccolo." "We thought it was cute," Tommy recalled, "a good icebreaker." After a 1998 expansion that more than doubled the original space, Piccolo became Piccolo Ristorante. In 2009, Tommy (whose father retired in 2004) opened a second spot, in Carle Place. "Lots of my friends have suggested we change the name to Piccolo Grande," he said.
What's on the menu If you grew up in Bellmore, Piccolo may well be your favorite Italian restaurant. The menu, huge and value-priced, doesn't stray far from Italian-American standards, although one stand-out appetizer is fried calamari Corleone, coated in teriyaki sauce and garnished with cashews and apples. It clearly outshone dry scaloppine, and desultory pastas.
What's in the name Robert Franceschini was born near Parma, so when he opened his restaurant in 1985, he called it, naturally enough, "Piccola Parma." But 10 years later, wanting to avoid confusion with La Parma in Williston Park, "I succumbed and changed the name to Piccolo's -- which is what everyone called it anyway," he recalled. "And I opened up a bigger can of worms."
What's on the menu Franceschini's menu blends Italian-American with the cooking of his native Emilia-Romagna. As that region is acknowledged to have Italy's best pasta, it's not surprising that his homemade pasta is excellent -- and unlike most "homemade" pasta on Long Island, it's actually made on the premises. Specials of spinach-and-ricotta crespelle (crepes) and lasagna verde Bolognese are excellent, and even warhorses such as chicken Francese are done with care and finesse.
BEST WINE LIST
215 Wall St., Huntington
What's in the name Piccolo, in the upper reaches of Huntington, is the grandest-looking of Long Island's Piccolos. But when it opened in 1988, said Dean Philippis, "it held 50 people, tops, with no bar. People had to wait in their cars for a table." Philippis' father, Dino, had owned pizzerias before, but this was his first fine-dining restaurant. (Dino died last year; Dean, who also owns Mill Pond House in Centerport, is partners at Piccolo with Tom Abraham.) Piccolo, that is, the tiny woodwind instrument, also resonated for Dino. "My father loved music," Philippis said. Piccolo expanded in 1999 and now comprises a bustling bar and a swanky dining room recently redecorated in shades of wood and cream.
What's on the menu Piccolo's regular menu hews pretty close to Italian-American standards. I recently enjoyed veal saltimbocca and a bountiful seafood fra diavolo over linguine. Creative dishes from the unfocused specials menu didn't fare so well: a lifeless arugula-fennel salad, an ill-conceived seafood-escarole pasta. Service, however, is exceedingly friendly and efficient. Piccolo's wine list is uncommonly good, with a nice selection of wines by the glass.
47 Shore Rd., Port Washington
What's in the name Victor Raimondo grew up in the town of Finale Ligure in Liguria, the region known as the Italian Riviera. In 1990, when he and partner Jack Santomauro opened their little restaurant overlooking the water in Port Washington, there seemed no better name for it than La Piccola Liguria.
What's on the menu La Piccola Liguria's written menu is secondary to its waiters' oral recitation of the day's dozens of specials. (I'd also advise a glance at the display of antipasti you pass on your way to your table.) True to its Ligurian heritage, the kitchen focuses on fish. Excellent recent appetizers included grilled sardines on a bed of watercress, a salad of smoked trout and Boston lettuce, a tender and piquant lobster fra diavolo. I only wish the pesto (Liguria's signature sauce) had been less creamy and more basil-y. La Piccola Liguria faces west onto Manhasset Bay and the setting sun's soft light brings an added warmth to the verdant dining room.
What's in the name In 1991, Piccola Bussola opened in Westbury, an offshoot of La Bussola, "the compass," a well-established white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in Glen Cove owned by Pasquale Lubrano and Steve Vaccaro. When La Bussola opened in 1980, Glen Cove was in the midst of an urban-renewal project that banished all street-side parking. With its street entrance closed, Lubrano and Vaccaro worried about their customers being able to find the restaurant's back door. "They'll need a compass to find us," Lubrano's son Tony recalled his father saying. Piccola Bussola, said Tony, connoted a more casual format. "The original place was upscale," he said, "Piccola Bussola was family style." The Huntington location (1993) and Mineola location (2003) are virtually identical to the original.
What's on the menu Piccola Bussola is justifiably famous for its enormous family-style portions of Italian-American standards; this is not the place for finesse or innovation. Some of the menu items are distinguished mainly by their size and quantity of garlic. But the good antipasto platter could feed the cast of "Survivor" -- on the first week -- and chicken scarpariello, hearty and served on the bone, is a winner.
BEST FAMILY STYLE
What's in the name In 1998, the partnership that owned Piccola Bussola split up. Lubrano retained the Huntington location (as well as La Bussola in Glen Cove). Vaccaro took the original Westbury location, renaming it Steve's Piccola Bussola. Vaccaro and his son Joseph teamed up with another partner, Rocco Gojcaj, to open the Syosset restaurant in 2008.
What's on the menu Of all the casual, value-priced "Piccolos" I ate in, I enjoyed my meal at Steve's in Syosset the most. Unadorned with fancy descriptors of chef-speak, the menu is a stark document that perfectly captures the regional Italian cuisine of Nassau County. All but one of the dozen appetizers could be explained in two words (fried zucchini, cold antipasto, etc.); the lone outlier was the rambling "octopus, grilled or cold." I found my baked clams, rigatoni Bolognese, chicken Francese, all well prepared and efficiently served. Gigantic portions.
What's in the name Opened in 2005 by Roland Mizaku, Piccolo Mondo (small world) is the latest entry in the Piccolo sweepstakes. Mizaku had worked in a number of Italian restaurants before taking over the space that had formerly been Tre Scalini. He liked the intimate feel of the dining room's bi-level setup. "It felt like a small world. I wanted to make it a warm place that people could come into from the outside and have delicious food."
What's on the menu Both the service and the cooking at Piccolo Mondo are characterized by attention to detail. Example: Describing a fish special of seared snapper on a bed of vegetable orzo and surrounded by broth, our waitress made a point of noting that the fish was not immersed in the broth and, thus, retained its crisp sear. That fish was delicious, as were big, fat clams Posillipo, in an herby-winey broth, a tender prosciutto-and-Fontina-stuffed veal chop Valdostano, and a textbook veal saltimbocca. The kitchen is ambitious, but with pastas priced in the mid teens and almost no entree more than $20, this Piccolo probably offers the best value.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Try the Margherita with a crust as delicious as its spare, perfect topping of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, or the baci, made with smoked mozzarella, pancetta and thinly sliced red onions.
Owner Sal Restivo said that he wasn't aware of the glut of piccolos when he opened his own in 1999. "We were a little store," he said. The name signified that "good things come in small packages."
1979 Carmelo Valenti opens Piccolo Pizza and Pasta in Bellmore.
1988 Dino Phillipis and his son Dean open Piccolo in Huntington.
1990 Victor Raimondo and Jack Santomauro open La Piccola Liguria in Port Washington.
1991 Lubrano and Vaccaro open Piccola Bussola in Westbury.
1993 Lubrano and Vaccaro open a second Piccola Bussola in Huntington.
1996 To avoid confusion with La Parma in Williston Park, Franceschini changes "Piccola Parma" to Piccolo's.
1998 Piccolo in Bellmore expands, more than doubling original space, and is renamed Piccolo Ristorante.
2003 Lubrano and sons open Piccola Bussola in Mineola.
2005 Piccolo Mondo opens in Huntington.
2008 Vaccaro, his sons, and partner Rocco Gojcaj open a second Steve's Piccola Bussola in Syosset.