PICCOLO (226 Carlton, at Berkeley, 416-?944-?3738) Complete dinners for $55 per person (lunches and brunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a glass of vino. Average main $20/$13. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. All-?you-?can-?eat $14.95 brunch buffet Sunday 10:30 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: nine steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
The three-storey victorian at 226 Carlton comes with a lot of history. Not only was it the home of Rowena Hume, the co-founder of Women’s College Hospital back in the day, but the stately townhouse has also housed a fair number of successful restaurants, including Parkes, El Cid and notorious salsa-fied meat market Tapas Bar.
Since then, the intimate space has undergone less successful transformations – blink-and-they’re-gone joints like Gypsy X, Two 26 and Fellini’s Shoe – but the room has found its feet again with Piccolo, the Italian trat that opened 18 months ago.
Not that Cabbagetown seems to notice. Sequestered behind the security systems of their inner city piles, the gentry have yet to discover a gem in their own backyard.
Though the summer sun beats down this Friday noon, Piccolo’s tiny curbside garden terrace is a cool refuge from the heat, a half-dozen awning-covered tables hidden by vegetation behind a high wrought-iron fence. Except for the exhaust from an occasional condo-construction-bound dump truck, it’s idyllic.
An extremely officious server soon appears with menus and a lovely loaf of crusty house-baked bread warm from the oven. A bottle of chilled Perrier ($6/750 ml) with sliced lemon follows, nice unexpected touches.
We also would never have guessed that something so simply described as “Tuscan salad” ($11) would be so complexly delicious: a heap of organic greens dressed in evo, tossed with a few fava beans, strips of raw red onion, cherry tomatoes, black olives, blueberries, sun-dried tomato and herbed crostini, the lot topped with tissue-thin slices of gloriously fatty prosciutto crudo and shaved Padano.
In contrast, both Brie al forno ($8 over the same mesclun) – gooey cheese-stuffed phyllo packets sided with red currant Cumberland sauce – and grilled calamari ($9 ditto) are just trat-standard. And we’d enjoy Piccolo’s thin-crusted Pizza Friuliana ($12 lunch/$13 dinner) even more if the generous hand that dressed the 12-inch pie with crumbled Gorgonzola, caramelized onion, more of that fab prosciutto and the odd frond of rapini didn’t get as carried away with the olive oil.
Brunch is a negligible concept at best. After all, what’s eggs Benedict if not just eggs topped with egg sauce? Throw “all-you-can-eat” and “buffet” into the equation and court certain disaster. Yet Piccolo’s Sunday $14.95 free-for-all is a welcome exception. And a steal, too.
You’ll find the Italian smorgasbord set up in the dining room under an ornate rococo chandelier. There, glass-lidded chafing dishes offer a decidedly not eggs-centric spread of mini-meatballs in sweet house sauce, thickly sliced roast beef, surprisingly tender chicken cacciatore and a very good cheesy pilaf thick with mushrooms and eggplant that borders on risotto.
Salads include an exceptional Caesar, a Caprese with ripe field tomatoes and fresh basil, baby peas with mint, and another of creamy Russian-style potato. For those who insist that the day doesn’t start correctly without an egg, chef and co-owner Angelo Dulic will whip up omelettes to request.
Like the bread, desserts are also made in-house: miniature custard tarts festooned with blackberries, old-school Black Forest cake, boozy crème brûlée and an unusually tasty tiramisu, the only disappointment a croissant that’s more Pilsbury Doughboy roll than Parisian sidewalk café.
Excellent service, a gorgeous patio and a value-minded card from a more than competent kitchen – why are we the only customers? Our guess is that once word gets out – oh, about NOW – Piccolo will be playing to a full house.