At tiny Piccolo, chef Doug Flicker is cooking on a big scale, serving one small dish at a time.
If there were a contest for accurately named restaurants, Piccolo might take the top prize.
The word is Italian for small, and size, or lack thereof, is the leitmotif that runs through nearly every aspect of this exceptional new south Minneapolis restaurant. The bantam-weight numbers speak loud and clear: Thirty-six seats. Sixteen menu items. A top price of $14. Thirty-dollar-and-under wine prices. A staff of 12.
The exception to the "small" rule is chef/co-owner Doug Flicker's talent and his ambitions. Both are big. Huge, even. Not that he's shoehorning himself into a matchbox. This isn't the culinary equivalent of watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on an iPhone. Piccolo may be a small stage, but it's an appropriately intimate venue for enjoying some colossal flavors.
In the three years since he pulled the plug on his much-loved Auriga, Flicker has been channeling his singular culinary gifts into venues not his own: Mission American Kitchen, Porter & Frye, D'Amico Kitchen. Now that he's his own boss again -- sharing the ownership duties with a former Auriga partner, Jim Andrus -- it's obvious that Flicker has used his exile from self-employment to carefully consider what's important to him.
Sustainably minded Piccolo reflects those values, and while Flicker's challenges to the restaurant world's status quo feel more incremental than radical, first-time diners will be doing themselves a favor by adapting an attitude adjustment when making a reservation (which, by the way, is a must; it may look like a drop-in neighborhood restaurant on the outside, but Piccolo has been inundated with Yelpers since Day 1).
Don't expect to encounter a 50-ounce bone-in rib-eye -- to date, the menu's sole beef selection has been tripe, another signal that Piccolo is so far removed from meat-and-potatoes Minnesota that it practically deserves its own area code.
Nor should you expect some other Metrodome-sized protein surrounded by side dishes (this is definitely a no-doggie-bag zone). Instead, the menu is a graduated series of exquisitely rendered, modestly portioned plates. Taken in concert, they become a do-it-yourself tasting menu, with diners determining the number of dishes that their appetite -- and budget -- allow.
"I hesitate to say that two courses would constitute a meal," explained a server, a sentiment with which I am in complete agreement. "That said, some industry people order the entire menu, and I think that's just plain silly." His suggestion: Four or five, including dessert. That sounds about right, although I'm partial to indulging in the whole 16-course enchilada. Although they're measured in bites, portions aren't so minuscule that they can't be effectively shared. A run-of-the-menu meal tops out at roughly $150, which, when split between two diners, is a competitive price in the degustation world.
Variety in moderation
The menu changes monthly, and I predict we'll feel Flicker's quality-not-quantity influence most when it comes to redefining the highly underrated sin of gluttony. Engaging in a mindless empty calorie fest, out; gorging ourselves upon Flicker's fertile, playful imagination, in. Way in.
It's easy to see that Flicker and his fellow cooks -- Polly Nielsen, Dan Berger and Linh Ho -- place a premium on curiosity. Why not make their own yogurt, then mildly infuse it with camomile? Or why not tinker with pork hocks -- yeah, pork hocks! -- by forming a ball of ground smoked pork and white Cheddar cheese, rolling it in panko, spearing it on a pig's bone and deep-frying it; the result is four-star state-fair fare.
Or why not show skeptics the blissful joy of pickled pig's feet? Flicker cites them as an example of "risk and reward" dining -- diners take the risk of stepping out of their comfort zone, and the chef rewards them with divine, lardon-shaped pops of pillowy, intensely porky meat, sprinkled over gently scrambled, protein-rich eggs. I can't imagine visiting the restaurant and not ordering it.
Picasso of the palate
Some dishes have such a remarkable sense of color and composition that I wonder if Flicker is a secret MCAD grad. From a distance, the painterly progression of several colors of beets, stacked into a terrine, could have been mistaken for an edible Rothko canvas. A plate of insanely tender gnocchi, toothy white beans and bits of pecorino Romano cheese was a study in how similar shades of a single color -- in this case, beige -- can be the most elegant solution possible.
Snappy prawns, poached in their shells in a scandalous amount of butter, and then arranged around a cigar-shaped curlicue of shaved cucumber, were so pretty that introducing them to cutlery felt like taking a sledgehammer to Michelangelo's "Pieta."
Flicker's idea of a salad was a nuanced arrangement of crisply roasted Brussels sprouts leaves, bits of tender white asparagus spears, a delicate toasted brioche crouton and lemon-kissed chèvre; it was as jazzy and improvisational as the spirited music tumbling out of the dining room's speakers.
Sometimes the menu goes straight for comfort, and the results are sublime, whether it's the world's most fabulous four-nibble grilled cheese sandwich, or the kind of artichoke gratin -- paired with tiny, intensely flavorful duck gizzards -- that you wish your Aunt Estelle would serve at her dreary Easter brunch but never does. Or ever could.
The approach to seafood is similarly revelatory, whether it means cutting coin-shaped shears of sushi-grade octopus and pairing it with stems of vinegar-laced Swiss chard, or thin-slicing sturgeon that's been infused with hickory smoke flavor and layering it with skinny slabs of fingerling potatoes and a bright, chunky lemon preserve. Salt-crusted bream, baked over a potato base, tasted like utter luxury, and like many dishes it was carved into a rectangle, clearly one of the kitchen's favorite shapes.
The more substantial proteins include rare-roasted duck, falling off the bone and paired with sweet prunes and salty house-cured pancetta, and lamb two ways: in a zesty, curry flecked merguez sausage and in the form of a succulent, chard-wrapped loin so tender it could have been cut with a butter knife.
Desserts are fine but don't occupy the same ethereal address as their savory counterparts. The occasional misstep -- a less-than-ideal dish (oily, slightly past-its-prime mackerel, for example), a sluggish pace from the kitchen or a service mishap -- feel like early glitches that will work themselves out as the restaurant matures.
Simplicity for the cook
Against a casual backdrop of butcherblock tables and heavy oak library chairs, Flicker has dotted the front dining room with Auriga mementos both sentimental and practical, including a striking painting that depicts sunflowers, a large mirror and a few repurposed banquettes.
Nearly every flat surface of the rear dining room acts as a repository for his cookbook collection, a delight for any book-loving voyeur (I can't be the only one with eyes that automatically scan bookshelves when I visit someone's home for the first time). It's a welcome touch in a restaurant where the chef's creative energy looms large, but whose actual physical presence is rendered almost invisible -- that is, unless you find yourself walking through the kitchen and getting a peek at Flicker and his crew as they calmly go through their paces.
When I fret about the long-term viability of Piccolo's business plan -- in terms of balance sheets, can small actually find success in our big-box world? -- I'm going to remember this: To my everlasting gratitude, Doug Flicker is demonstrating that being small doesn't mean you can't think big. That has to be money in the bank, right?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?