Piccolo's small plates enable chef to flex creative muscles

At Piccolo, small plates are created with big-plate sophistication.

At Piccolo, small plates are created with big-plate sophistication.

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.

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.

The chioggia beet terrine.

The chioggia beet terrine.

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.

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.

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.

I don't think that cultivating a "hot" foodie restaurant was really Flicker's intention—remember, this is a guy known to cook in a sock-monkey stocking cap! He may be using hip, millennial cooking techniques, but he is also thinking holistically about food production and social justice and engaging in the less-glamorous, patience-testing parts of those processes. Using a grow light in the restaurant's basement, Flicker is already raising microgreens and sprouting artichoke seeds; this summer he hopes to put some raised beds out back and maybe get a few chickens. As for the rest of the winter, he'll likely be doing more shoveling.