Tiny Piccolo is the little restaurant that could. And how.
Don't let its unassuming south Minneapolis location do a number on you. Ditto the name (which means "little" in Italian), or the small-scale setting, just 36 seats. That's because big things are happening inside tiny Piccolo.
Thrilling things, actually. It's not going overboard to invoke the word "visionary" when considering what chef/co-owner Doug Flicker has accomplished since he opened the restaurant in February. Want to experience the future of cooking? Make a beeline to the corner of 43rd Street and Bryant Avenue S. Don't forget to make a reservation.
The menu's 16 or so choices are designed to encourage and facilitate a build-your-own degustation experience, following the theory set forth by star chef Thomas Keller. "The law of diminishing returns," Keller calls it, theorizing that a dish's luster diminishes with each bite.
"What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience," Keller wrote in his landmark "The French Laundry Cookbook." "I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.'"
Nothing more accurately describes the Piccolo experience. Flicker ups the ante by giving locally accepted tastes a much-needed boot in the backside. Smoked eel, tripe and other Minnesota-menu rarities blossom under Flicker's fertile imagination and considerable technical prowess; he is, after all, the chef who turned scrambled eggs and pigs feet into the year's most talked-about dish.
"It was a big risk, wondering if people would really be drawn to veal head or pig's tail, but obviously the answer is 'Yes,'" said Flicker. "I've learned that you give people credit, you make them comfortable, and they'll try it, and they'll like it."
More like love it. On the flip side, Flicker has the enviable gift for repositioning the mundane into artful, even adventurous new identities. Beets? Chicken? Ricotta-filled pasta? They taste as if born anew, and boast museum-quality looks.
The gracious, closely knit service staff (headed by co-owner Jim Andrus, one of Flicker's partners at their former Auriga) seems to revel in their guests' sense of discovery and joy, while the semi-casual setting is the epitome of Midwestern modesty.
There is simply no other restaurant like it in the Twin Cities, but that can't last for long. Innovative Piccolo deserves its place as an industry role model.
As for being his own boss again, after several years of working for others, "It's better than I thought it would be," Flicker said. "It's strange to do exactly what makes me happy every day, and have money in the bank. I'm still pinching myself."
What a coincidence. Twin Cities diners, elated to find a enterprise of this caliber in their midst, are following suit. We certainly are.