Piccolo's small plates enable chef to flex creative muscles

Doug Flicker's new restaurant is pint-size, but not on taste

To quickly differentiate the residents who are invested in a neighborhood from those who aren't, just wait till it snows. For the former, it's typically a point of pride (or guilt, perhaps) to keep their sidewalks scraped down to raw concrete. The latter take less responsibility for their share of the commons, leaving the fluffy stuff to be packed down by passersby until the whole stretch turns icy and treacherous.

On a snowy night not long ago, the midnight skies had earlier dumped several inches of winter wonder, then slowed to a trickle of flakes glittering in the streetlights' glow. I was departing Piccolo Restaurant at the same time as another couple and watched the man playfully edge the woman into a waist-high snow bank, launching a flirtatious tussle.

I then noticed a shadowy figure outside the restaurant, shoveling a fine layer of snow off the walk with a raspy scrape. It wasn't an immediate necessity—the next batch of diners wouldn't be arriving for at least 16 hours—but it was just another of the millions of mundane chores required to make a business successful. A moment later, I recognized the shoveler as none other than Piccolo's Doug Flicker, one of Twin Cities' most celebrated chefs, his white jacket cloaked by a giant parka.

At Piccolo, small plates are created with big-plate sophistication.
Alma Guzman
At Piccolo, small plates are created with big-plate sophistication.
The chioggia beet terrine.
The chioggia beet terrine.

After years working in several noteworthy Twin Cities kitchens—D'Amico's, Table of Contents, the Loring—Flicker had a 10-year run as a partner at Auriga, where he picked up many a Best Chef and Best Restaurant award. Since Auriga closed in 2007, Flicker has been working in someone else's employ (Mission American Kitchen, Porter & Frye, and, again, D'Amico's), using the time to "recover," bank a steady paycheck, and plot his next move.

Shortly after the New Year rolled around, Flicker opened his new pint-size restaurant, Piccolo, in the former home of Agri at 43rd and Bryant (Flicker contacted the struggling restaurant and convinced the owner to shut down so he and former Auriga moneyman James Andrus could have the space). Piccolo's Italian-influenced bill of fare is as tiny as its 36-seat space. The list reads like an exuberant tasting menu, offering a little more than a dozen modestly portioned dishes that range from $6 to $14. Small plates are the obvious reference point, but unlike the uniform bites of olives, dumplings, or fish found in tapas, dim sum, or sushi, these are multi-element compositions, artfully plated to resemble mini-entrées.

Describing the concept, Flicker says he's grown tired of the conventional menu structure—the expected progression of soups, salads, and appetizers to larger entrees—and the obligatory cycle of the same half-dozen main-dish proteins. Instead, his one-size-fits-all approach allows more flexibility, as something like octopus, for example, could be prepared in an "entrée" style, yet remain an appropriate portion. Flicker says he's happy to be free of the pressure to increase a dish's size to justify a higher price and the resulting overconsumption or food waste.

I've been trying to think of a term for the concept, since there's really nothing like it—exclusively small plates—in town. Coursed dining? Fractional eating? Tasting plates? I'm not sure how to name it, but I do know how to define it: It's a format that enables a chef to really stretch his creative muscles—and it allows the diner to experience as much of those efforts as possible. Flicker's explanation is more straightforward: "I wanted to cook the food I really wanted to cook," he says.

Some items are utterly simple, such as the scrambled eggs, cooked on low heat to remain a little runny, and dotted with truffle shavings and bits of pickled pig's feet. The trotter will never win any beauty contests—think ancient jars in the back of Grandma's fridge or on countertops of rural bars—but the odd bits of meat, fat, and gelatin spike the warm, savory gelato with salt and vinegar. There's also Italy's version of rice and beans: gnocchi with cannellini, slightly undercooked to a grainy texture that contrasts the pillowy pasta, laced together with tangy robiola cheese and nubs of house-made guanciale.

Not everything is so rich, including a white asparagus and Brussels sprout ragout paired with a tiny microgreen-topped ball of chèvre on a crouton pedestal. Or the perfectly crunchy-tender croquettes, made with delicate, grassy-tasting sunchoke instead of potato, and served with a concentrated shock of sweet-tart green-apple mustard.

When Auriga debuted, its initial menu was dubbed ambitious, intimidating, and "impossibly academic," and several Piccolo dishes have a similar food-nerd appeal with their puzzle-like preparations. Roast chicken may sound banal, but in Flicker's hands it's a complicated construction that involves boning out flavor-rich chicken thighs, layering them with bread and transglutaminase, an enzyme used to bond proteins and known colloquially as "meat glue," then cooking them sous vide (vacuum-packed in a warm water bath for several hours). Before service, the pieces are cut into bricks and browned so the skin gets crispy and the bread catches the juices, as in stuffing. Paired with a few bites of ricotta French toast and sweet turnips, it's one of the best ways to eat chicken in town. Another labor-intensive dish involves quail stuffed with barley and house-made sausage, then rolled in caul fat (a fatty, lace-like membrane that surrounds the organs of cattle, sheep, and pigs). It's served with a briney-tasting salsify and garlicky potato purée—in Flicker's hands, root vegetables are more delight than seasonal drudgery.

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