Piccolo's small plates enable chef to flex creative muscles

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

Flicker is also incorporating homely proteins into his repertoire. To prepare beef shins—the cut used for osso buco—he removed the meat from the bone in strips, meat-glued them together, then cooked them sous vide. Meat from the ham hock, or pig leg, was mixed with ground pork, flour, egg wash, and breadcrumbs, then fried and served on a bone like a gourmet state fair corn dog—but don't make the mental comparison unless you want to bristle at the $12 price tag. Flicker seems to thrive on the challenge of reworking culinary ideas. "It's cracking that nut that makes coming to work every day worth it," he says.

Because Flicker's work rarely feels bounded by practical realities, his restaurants have long been favorites of other chefs and industry people. (One Monday night I recognized both Tim Niver, owner of the Strip Club, and the guys who run the Gastro Non Grata events.) Even with complex, multifaceted dishes, Flicker's style always feels personal, not trendy, pretentious, or trying too hard.

At Piccolo, Flicker has made his first foray into sweets, since he couldn't staff a pastry chef. The first panna cotta I tried, which was flavored with ricotta, was too soft and dissolved to a watery liquid, instead of cream. But the second iteration was perfect: The caramel-nuttiness of malted panna cotta paired with chocolate milk foam and figs. The bitter almond cake was equally outstanding: crusty-edged, with a lovely, puffy center, sweetened with brown-butter honey and vanilla ice cream.

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.

Flicker likens his changing menu to getting dressed in the morning and wearing what you feel like wearing; sometimes it really works, and other times it doesn't. I did find a few shoulder pads, balloon pants, and belly shirts in the bunch, with off-putting or unbalanced combinations. I loved the bold-but-not-too-fishy mackerel served with mushrooms and artichokes, but the side of tomato jam was a touch too sweet. Olives that accompanied the lamb with squash confit were an unwelcome third wheel. And the prawns with Israeli couscous looked like a gorgeous oceanic diorama—the spindly, coral-colored creatures reposed on a bed of pearls with cucumber slices rolled into spiral nautilus shells—but the flavors of saffron and chamomile yogurt made the dish taste milquetoast. Mild can be good, as was the case with the celery root terrine with sweet apple butter and salty speck. The subsequent chioggia beet version was an unfortunate change, with its odd combination of earthy beet, musky truffle, and cloying honey.

While it's easy to run up a large bill at Piccolo, those with smaller appetites and budgets could be satisfied, I think, with two or three courses, a few slices of Rustica bread, and a shared dessert. Dishes may be ordered as individual courses or grouped batches, and sharing is encouraged. (Though don't try to split a single order with more than one person or you'll undergo an awkward rationing of ping-pong-ball-size croquettes and slices of Barbie-size pickles.)

In evaluating Piccolo, I kept asking myself if I had loved any dishes so much that I wished they'd been—dare I say it?—larger. The pine-cured confit veal breast was one, though a restrained portion was admittedly reasonable considering its pork-belly-like crisp skin, thick layer of buttery fat, and slightly gamey-tasting meat (for what it's worth, I didn't detect any pine). The black cod was another favorite, served with thin slices of celery brined in a smoke-flavored liquid, and a hazelnut purée that reminded me of tahini studded with bits of pancetta. Also, the Swiss chard ravioli with duck tenderloin that created an exciting interplay of flavors: rich meat and bitter greens balanced by the soft sweetness of dates and the crunchy sting of pickled walnuts.

These weren't sweet-salty-fatty, button-pushing, crave-inducing foods, but they were engaging nonetheless. And I expect that spring produce will fuel Flicker's laboratory-like process to cultivate even more successful dishes, delivered by an already polished front-of-the-house staff.

By the third time I visited, I was probably receiving particularly attentive service, since my dining so often at the potentially pricey restaurant was likely a tipoff that I was either a critic or an internet dater with a trust fund. Still, I think others will find the service deft, knowledgeable, and as unobtrusive as possible given the interruption-prone nature of multi-plate service.

For example, when I asked about a particularly smooth, charismatic dolcetto wine, the server provided a very helpful description of its context and character. (Often I find that servers answer wine questions as though I were looking for something in a supermarket and the stockperson simply points to a general area. This server's response was like being escorted to the aisle and having the item handed to me.) Gratuities are shared with the entire kitchen staff, which seems to have helped self-select servers committed to the business and not just to the cash.

Piccolo's dining room has a relaxed vibe, and I noticed that several parties lingered and talked for more than a half-hour after their meals. One downside to Flicker's cachet is that it can attract a certain type of diner whose zeal for the food can border on distracting. One night I was squished onto a banquette next to a couple who behaved like culinary anthropologists, analyzing and documenting each dish while scrawling notes on the menu. "I really like the prep on the pistachios," the man said to his wife after feeding her a forkful, which might have been cute had I not been sitting in participatory proximity.

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