Like the shy girl with the golden smile, Piccolo Mondo--Carl Quagliata's restaurant in downtown's trendy Warehouse District--has always been likable enough, though not exactly dazzling.
But now, with a new man in her life, little Piccolo Mondo has trimmed down, lightened up, and looks poised to give her neighboring fine-dining establishments some heavy-duty competition.
The genius behind Piccolo Mondo's pleasing transformation is Executive Chef Todd Stein, a Chicago native who came to Cleveland this spring after working at several of the Windy City's most popular restaurants.
In Stein's hands, Piccolo Mondo's former menu of run-of-the-mill standards--like pizza, pasta, veal Marsala, and pork chops--has been overhauled and updated. Gone is the reliance on predictable ingredients like portobello mushrooms, risotto, and arrabbiatta sauces. In their place are such novel tastes (for Cleveland, at least) as red-grape tomatoes, diver's scallops, and grilled hearts of romaine.
Even the few oldies that remain have been perked up: A fried-calamari appetizer previously served with a tired marinara now comes with a zippy paste of sweet blanched garlic and fresh parsley.
Certainly, Stein couldn't have chosen a more appropriate setting for his contemporary Mediterranean cuisine. Piccolo Mondo's clay-tile floors and saffron-hued walls have always given it a warm and sunny air, although the hard surfaces may be a factor in the often maddeningly high noise level. And its floor-to-ceiling windows brings in what could be one of the most charming views in downtown: the tree-lined sidewalks of the historic district, with the city's skyline for a backdrop.
My first visit since Stein's arrival came during a weekday lunch. I was immediately captivated by an unusual salad of warm, lightly grilled hearts of romaine, resting on a slight amount of smooth balsamic vinegar, oil, and salty Reggiano Parmesan cheese. Except for where it had met the grill, the smoky lettuce was still crisp and juicy, and came topped with two thick slices of rosy prosciutto ham and four tender pieces of cold, marinated artichoke heart. It was a revelation to find that simple romaine could pack such a punch.
Next up was a luncheon special of housemade fettuccine in a saffron-cream sauce, a dish that was just about as tasty as the law allows. The delicate sauce was rich though not heavy, and the pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente, but best of all was the wonderful seafood that topped it. The half-dozen large diver's scallops (pricey hand-picked sea scallops, "dry" packed without preservatives, and shipped directly from Atlantic coastal waters) were bursting with fresh ocean flavor. They were joined by three sweet jumbo shrimp that popped with taste. Together, they made this pasta dish one of the best I've had in months.
Visit Number Two came on a warm and rainy Saturday night, when the city looked fresh-scrubbed and enticing. Our sense of excitement increased when we spotted a Viognier on the wine list. Originally from France, this fashionable white wine has an unusual taste of ripe melon and minerals, and is so "big" that it can enter into food pairings that would leave a thin, oaky chardonnay in despair. Despite its popularity on the coasts, it has been slow to show up on Cleveland-area wine lists. Piccolo Mondo's Gregory Graham 1997 Knight's Valley Viognier was a good example of the style--with lots of ripe fruit taste and a smooth finish that went well with nearly everything on Stein's menu. The wine retails for about $25 a bottle; at the restaurant's price of $40, it represented a good value. (Graham, incidentally, grew up in a Cleveland suburb trying to make good wine from our local Concord grapes. In 1980, he prudently gave up that pursuit and moved to California, where he found success as a custom vintner.)
Appetizer selections this night included a simple mesclun salad, dressed in a bright, well-balanced walnut-oil vinaigrette. The crisp mix of greens was garnished with nothing more than several remarkably sweet, tiny red-grape tomatoes, yet it managed to be one of the most delightfully refreshing salads we've sampled this spring.
Not as good was a pedestrian Caesar salad. Although the torn romaine was crisp and plentiful, the dressing seemed flat-footed, almost as though the kitchen had forgotten to add any acid to the oily blend.
Breaded and fried calamari on a swoosh of sweet garlic paste was a standout. The squid was terrifically crisp, yet tender, with no hint of chewiness, and the breading was crunchy and light. Unlike a heavy "dipping" sauce, the mild garlic paste, sprinkled with parsley, added flavor without masking the taste or the texture of the squid.
Also outstanding was an appetizer of tender, earthy snails in a translucent brown sauce based on veal stock. Seasoned with lots of pepper and garlic, and loaded with sliced field mushrooms, the dish was marvelously bold. In fact, accompanied by the dense ciabatta bread from our breadbasket, it could have stood alone as a great rustic meal.
Although all of our entrees were good, a bowl of homemade three-cheese agnolotti (crescent-shaped ravioli) was a favorite. The firm little pasta pockets, along with whole roasted pearl onions and a few slices of lean, caraway-seed-studded Italian sausage, were tossed in a creamy roasted-tomato sauce. Taken together, the flavors were robust, but not overwhelming, and melded into a tummy-pleasing whole.
Likewise, roasted halibut steak, on a bed of diced and steamed zucchini and yellow squash, was relatively light and straightforward, but admirably full-flavored. The rosemary-scented dish got its zip from a few slabs of Roma tomatoes, which had been seasoned with herbs and olive oil and slow-roasted to release the sugars, and a sprightly vinaigrette spiked with bits of sharp-and-salty kalamata olives.
Three fork-tender, medium-rare medallions of delicate grilled lamb were lushly seasoned with garlic, rosemary, and olive oil, and garnished with a spoonful of fruity mashed-fig relish. We especially loved the sandy crunch of the tiny fig seeds in contrast to the juicy meat. The lamb came on a bed of enthusiastically roasted fava beans. I found them dry and mealy, but our diner, an organic type of gal, loved them.
Our final entree was a mammoth beef rib chop, grilled to a lovely medium-rare and topped with plenty of finely chopped garlic. The heavily marbled meat was tender and flavorful, although it required some trimming at the table to remove fat. It was set in a small amount of intensely flavored white-wine reduction sauce and accompanied by lengths of quartered, seasoned, and roasted Idaho potatoes that were crisp on the outside, but buttery soft within.
Dominated by "old standards," Piccolo Mondo's dessert menu could use a few more novel touches. Still, Pastry Chef William Fazekas is very good at what he does. His raspberry/white-chocolate creme brulee is one of the best around: thick, cold, and creamy, with lots of vanilla and egg flavor. Several small raspberries had been baked into the top of the custard, just beneath the thin crust of still-hot caramelized sugar; several more beauties garnished the top. Although we couldn't quite pick out the flavor of the white chocolate, we didn't miss it: It's impossible to imagine anything that could have made the dessert more scrumptious than it already was.
A flourless, two-layer chocolate-almond torte, with a thick layer of Amaretto cream in the middle, was also well-done: The cake was moist and tender, and the cream filling was light as a cloud. And a serving of tiramisu, if not unique, was still as rich as anyone could hope for.
A homey berry "crostata"--a warm dessert of blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries baked in a moist cornmeal shortdough and topped with a scoop of homemade vanilla gelato--was the winner, however. Neither too sweet nor too heavy, and with a little bit of crunch from the cornmeal, the comforting dessert was like something a gifted grandma might have made.
Now that Piccolo Mondo's menu has shaped up, a few exercises for the waitstaff wouldn't be amiss. On both visits, our servers were fresh-faced youngsters who seemed oblivious to some of the finer points of service. One became unnecessarily defensive after mistakenly bringing us the wrong bottle of wine. The other disappeared for twenty minutes after bringing dessert, despite having been pleasantly reminded that we were ready for our check. Not that unaccomplished service is unusual--even in some of the area's finest restaurants--but it's a shame that such an otherwise glowing dining experience was dimmed by less-than-first-class help.
Still, Stein's arrival has certainly made a small world of difference at Piccolo Mondo. It looks like the former wallflower of a restaurant is a beauty now and ready to party with the big girls.
Piccolo Mondo. 1352 West Sixth Street, Cleveland. 216-241-1300.
Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. Dinner served after 4:30 p.m.
Grilled Hearts of Romaine With Prosciutto $8
Fried Calamari With Sweet Garlic $7
Caesar Salad $6
Mesclun Greens $7
Snails With Wild Mushrooms $10
Roasted Halibut With Zucchini and Yellow Squash $20
Grilled Lamb Loin $24
Grilled Beef Rib Chop $27
Three-Cheese Agnolotti $14
Fettuccine With Diver's Scallops and Shrimp in Saffron Cream $12 (lunch)
Raspberry/White-Chocolate Creme Brulee $5
Flourless Chocolate-Almond Torte $5.50
Fresh Berry Crostata $