It is not often that an ethnic restaurant in the U.S. actually evokes the cuisine and overall feeling of its country of interest, but Piccolo Trattoria in Pennington, N.J. is the exception to the rule. When food is so good that it absolutely compels a review, potential diners can rest assured that they will be in for something special should they choose to take a meal at said eatery.
The restaurant offers authentic Italian cuisine, homemade pastas and traditional desserts. On a recent visit, an appetizer of Arancina Di Funghi figuratively whisked everyone in the dining party to the streets of Sicily, where vendors sell succulent fried rice balls out of street carts. While these crunchy, hot, savory delicacies are easy to find in most regions of Italy, it is nearly impossible to locate them on any Italian menu here in the U.S. Piccolo Trattoria’s version was filled, of course, with funghi (mushrooms), and laced with white truffle oil, which gave the dish a deep umami flavor. The addition of the restaurant’s signature marinara sauce added a delightful tang, and the rice was perfectly al dente (not too well-done–the way Italians prefer their hot starches.)
Next up was a second course of Arugula Con Pera, which was like a celebration of Italy’s love of perfectly balanced bitter flavors as well as a liberal use of pine nuts. Arugula is common in Italy, and particularly in Sicily. The dinner was rapidly turning into a tour of the Southern part of the “boot,” and our party could not have been more pleased. The house-made dressing was a delightful combination of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and spices.
Moving on to the pasta, which is homemade, we sampled Fusilli Faraj: fusilli pasta with three types of mushrooms and a cream sauce; and Gnocchi Florentino. The gnocchi was particularly exciting because it was made in the traditional way with potatoes and ricotta cheese rather than just potatoes like the version one gets in so many other Italian restaurants. At Piccolo Trattoria, though, the little pillows were just as soft and fluffy as they are in an Italian grandmother’s house. The Fusilli Faraj was a nice compliment to the mushroom theme carried over from the rice and mushroom appetizer, and the cream sauce was rich and filling. We enjoyed a light riesling which we brought from home since Piccolo Trattoria is BYOB.
We then moved on to the main course, enjoying a seared bronzino and an order of chicken marsala, again bringing in the mushroom theme with the final dish. The bronzino was just as it should be: flaky, juicy and mild. The marsala sauce exploded with flavor and the chicken was incredibly tender. It is obvious that Piccolo Trattoria cares about food quality as every bite was fresh and flavorful.
Dessert was more wine (of course!) and a shared coconut cake, which was rich, moist, and dense. Other dessert choices included Italian favorites like cannoli and tiramisu.
The service could not have been better, and the waitstaff made us feel as though we were right at home. The ambiance is beautiful, with both indoor and outdoor seating. Those lucky enough to visit this hidden gem in good weather should not miss sitting outside by the marble fountain. Bring a bottle of white, red and rose’ and toast to “la bella vita!”
By: Rebecca Savastio