By Ron Bernthal
Chef Philip Guardione used to spend his days and nights on Manhattan’s Prince and Spring streets, where his two popular restaurants, Piccola Cucina Enoteca, 184 Prince, opened 2010, and Piccola Cucina Osteria, 196 Spring, opened 2013, attract locals and tourists who love his Sicilian-inspired cuisine as well as the street scene in the vibrant SoHo neighborhood. A European venue, Piccola Cucina Ibiza, operates on the Spanish island of Ibiza from April-October; Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture is a seasonal “pop-up” in Red Lodge, Montana; and an Eastside Manhattan restaurant is expected to open in the near future. These days, however, chef Guardione can also be found on nearby Thompson Street, where his latest culinary venture, Piccola Cucina Estiatorio, at 75 Thompson, opened in 2017, and has no trouble filling all 23 tables for lunch and dinner. Almost all the produce served to customers at his restaurants is shipped in from Sicily, a point that chef Guardione stresses during media interviews. “Everything tastes different in Sicily. The Mediterranean waters around Sicily is different. It has more salt. The fish tastes different,” he said. “We import everything, even the people,” he added, speaking about his mostly-Italian wait-staff and the cooks in his restaurants’ open kitchens. Because fish and seafood is so central to the cuisine of Sicily, where chef Guardione grew up and, thus, to the menu in all his restaurants, my companions and I as Piccola Cucina Estiatorio definitely wanted to try several of the fish items on the menu, served in every way – raw, grilled, baked, broiled, in salads or pasta. . The raw fish, called crudo di mare, included salmon ceviche, tuna tartare, yellowtail carpaccio, and salmon sashimi. These were all fresh and cold and easy to share among the group. The yellowtail, topped with orange and fennel was especially good. The seafood appetizers were also wonderful, with portions of grilled octopus and fried sardines crisp and delicious as was the bruschetta with guacamole and lobster, which seemed to be a popular appetizer at the other tables as well. The menu offered ten different pasta plates, including pasta alla Norma (maccheroni with eggplant in tomato sauce with ricotta cheese), and spaghetto nero (black ink spaghetti with scampi langoustine and zucchini flowers). For those who like pasta with seafood, it was not a problem to find sea urchins, or clams, or cured fish roe in pasta dishes, served in huge bowls of course, with warm bread on the side.
The fish of the day, whole filleted sea bass, was moist and tender, served with grilled vegetables, while the baby lamb chops (the only other meat available was ribeye steak) were accompanied by lemon potatoes and steamed spinach. The table went with bottles of Sicilian red and white wine, with other Italian regional wines listed as well. I had to order a bottle of Arianna Occhipinti 2016 Il Frappato Igt Terre Siciliane Vittoria, the full name of which, coincidentally, includes my daughter and step-daughter’s first names, and the last name of friends from Scranton, PA. For desserts the table shared wonderful cannoli, tiramisu, and crème bruleé with fruit.
On a warm, summer night the SoHo neighborhood was alive with bicycles, motor scooters, slow moving cars looking for parking spaces, groups of couples strolling arm-in-arm, and single Village women with ice cream in one hand and a dog lease in the other. Inside, a friendly, very noisy group of diners filled the restaurant, conversations were shared among tables, wine was flowing, Sicilian spoken among the wait staff and between the cooks in the lively open kitchen. The scene and atmosphere looked and felt like Palermo’s Piazza Olivella, and there’s nothing wrong with that.