There are so many restaurants on the Upper West Side, so many ceiling-height windows full of bright colors, that one could easily walk right by an entryway as unassuming as that of Piccolo Cafe. Don’t. Past the more obvious espresso window lies a smattering of little tables where you can enjoy delicious, authentic Italian food prepared by bonafide Bolognesi in a space papered with organically-pasted Italian news clippings going back over 100 years, and decorated with beautiful reclaimed wood and funky objets d’art from post-Hurricane-Irene.
The owners of Piccolo Cafe are Alberto Ghezzi, Gianluca Capozzi, Ilan Telmont and Michele Casadei Massari. They own several other locations, but we favor the Piccolo Cafe on the UWS. Because we dig the neighborhood of course. But even more because ours is the only one that serves dinner!
Gianluca himself serves dinner at our location nightly. He works from a partially open kitchen behind a little dining bar where patrons can peek in. Sitting there also earns you education on (and tastes of!) unusual ingredients. A few would include bottarga, chili threads, and different types of imported wild honey.
The menu begins with a long list of unique breakfast and brunch items. There’s a particular focus on eggs in combinations you don’t see coming. We loved the uova al forno, an egg baked into a delicious, sweet Sicilian tomato sauce with lots of fresh peas and served in a skillet. Their flaky croissants are irresistible with beautifully poached eggs and creamy sauce, decked out with huge chunks of Maine lobster or cold-smoked salmon (served on the side, so the egg won’t cook it — we hate when that happens).
Brunch at Piccolo Cafe
Our favorite item on their UWS brunch menu was surprisingly the salami sandwich. It includes a combination of bufala mozzarella with a balsamic glaze, tomatoes, arugula, plain omelet, thinly sliced salami, and a shmear of a habanero jelly that packs a sweet and spicy punch I crave.
They also make their own yogurt. This makes Piccolo Cafe a great quick morning stop for those without the time or inclination for a long meal. All of this is served with their own coffee. In fact, this entire chain of cafes started out as an Italian coffee roasting company in 1938. So the coffee is a highlight (and you can buy the coffee to take with you!)
Dinner at Piccolo Cafe
For dinner, start with a beautiful dish of stuffed calamari with pancetta, pesto, and spicy tomato sauce with chili threads that have a great balance of flavors. Or a bruschetta with bufala, artichokes, and bottarga (and watch your new vocab words come alive).
Next, try the lovely subtle homemade spaghetti with manila clams Gianluca and Michele perfected after serving it for years on a beach in Sardinia. I actually overheard accolades throughout the little room. One woman claimed to drive over an hour for this dish three times a week!
I personally swooned over the rich ragu, full of tiny bits of meat that stick to the sides of the infinitely long handmade fettuccine. Each bite layered with soft and chewy textures and packing in all the flavor of a fabulous 6-hour sauce. The scallops with parmesan sauce and bacon and artichokes were deliciously paired, and balanced to highlight the sweet fresh scallop flavor.
My absolute favorite entree so far is the skirt steak “in padella,” which Gianluca told me was their version of tagliata: a wonderful juicy cut of meat, flavored with rosemary and garlic, served over crispy bread, and with arugula and thinly sliced parmesan on top. It is a simply perfect combination of flavors.
Dessert at Piccolo Cafe
For a sweet ending, one great option includes their airy, crunchy tiramisu. Or a jarred panna cotta with caramel. But the budino with cooked strawberries and a drizzle of wild honey was more than wonderful tasting. It was an instant, warm, bittersweet chocolate memory of the way childhood hot cocoa tasted on a snowy day.
For all I have said about the delicious food I recommend, which incidentally runs from about 12-20 bucks for generously portioned entrees, it is important to add that we also love the Piccolo Cafe for its charming neighborhood feel, for the friendly bilingual chatter, and for the people we get to meet there: sweet young couples still discovering the city, singles munching and reading at the bar, and whole families sitting down to a dinner that reminds them of time in Italy, and soon, you.
313 Amsterdam Ave.
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