Celebrating its fifth anniversary in March, Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville still ignites passion and commitment from its customers.
Piccolo Forno and its loyal customers don't need marital advice from Dr. Phil; their relationship is alive and well after almost five years together. With a wood-fired oven at the restaurant's center, the flames of passion are literally still burning bright. But behind the scenes, it's commitment and consistency that will ensure that this relationship flourishes into its golden years.
At the ripe age of 22, chef/owner Domenic Branduzzi and his family opened this restaurant five years ago to showcase the food from his hometown of Lucca, in the Tuscany region of Italy. Piccolo Forno (translation: "small oven") is not trying to be trendy but stays close to its core mission-to give Pittsburghers the opportunity to enjoy, and maybe even fall in love with, the food of Lucca.
Branduzzi will modestly tell you that his menu is mostly "pasta and pizza." And what pasta and pizza it is! Branduzzi has made a commitment to provide customers with 100 percent homemade pasta and pizza doughs. This is no small commitment, as it translates into daily hard work. Branduzzi's mother Carla, whom he describes as the "heart and soul" of the restaurant, hand-makes a dozen varieties of pasta, as well as gnocchi and crêpes.
Like the pasta, the pizza dough is made in-house daily. Branduzzi has almost literally a lifetime of baking experience. After immigrating to the United States with his family at age 5, he grew up working at Il Piccolo Forno, the well-loved Strip District bakery of his parents-Antonio and Carla Branduzzi.
As a young adult, Domenic worked at several pizza shops, including Regina Margherita, and baked his way through college, earning a degree in international business and marketing at Duquesne University before embarking on opening his own restaurant with the participation of his parents and sisters.
Today he makes regular trips back to Lucca to visit relatives. Those visits include spending time cooking with his aunt and uncle, pizzeria owners, from whom he finds inspiration for new menu ideas.
At lunch you will find the restaurant full, but not overcrowded, with a mixture of working people getting a quick bite, and others who linger over their meals for hours of hearty conversation.
In the evening, you will see an urbane crowd with hip glasses and handsome scarves dashing to the door, wine bottles in hand. Be prepared to wait in line or come at an off-time, as reservations are only available for parties of more than four. The restaurant can be noisy when crowded, which it often is, so find a corner table for intimate conversation.
Like the food, the décor is simple and appealing. It features a warm palette of earthy design elements-rustic brick walls, pumpkin paint, marble table tops-all well-lit by dropped black spotlights. Simple black-and-white photographs of Italy complement the look.
The dining room is one open space. From any table, you can see the pizza maker working at the wood-fired brick oven.
The menu is fairly lengthy, offering appetizers, soups, salads (an impressive eight choices), panini and more than a dozen each of pasta and pizza dishes. The menu does not include meat- or fish-centered entrees.
For appetizers, our table started with Crostini di Polenta, Bruschette Varie (mixed bruschetta), Affettati (slice meats) platter and Verdure Miste (mixed vegetables):
The polenta ($7) had a crunchy edge and three flavorful toppings-roasted tomatoes, mushroom pâté and a melted mozzarella and gorgonzola mix. The presentation was pleasing and colorful.
The large bruschette ($6) came with three tasty toppings-roasted-red-pepper spread, olive tapenade and sliced tomatoes with homemade pesto.
The Affettati ($9) offered seven cheeses and cured meats served with ciabatta.
Verdure Miste ($7) was my favorite of the four-a beautiful platter of properly cooked, lightly seasoned vegetables (asparagus, carrots, eggplant, zucchini and cippolini onions) arranged geometrically. They were neatly but plainly presented-no garnishes, drizzles or oil.
All the appetizers were generously portioned and easy to share.
For salads, we tried the Insalata di Finocchio ($7), a successful version of the traditional Italian fennel, orange and black-olive salad. The fennel was sliced thinly enough to absorb the flavors of the oil and the orange. The house side salad ($3.50) was a predictable handful of mesclun with a sprinkle of blue cheese and red onions; a flask of homemade balsamic vinaigrette livened it up a bit.
Among pasta dishes, popular choices are lasagna, fettucine with boar and three-color crêpes. The chef also recommends gnocchi with tomato sauce, spinach-filled ravioli with sage butter and pappardelle with braised rabbit.
The signature Lasagna Toscana ($14) is an absolute must-have. Made according to the recipe of Branduzzi's grandmother, the lasagna is a baked layering of thin pasta, savory meat ragu and a satisfying béchamel. The first bite is sublime and will impress you with its complex flavors, textures and sheer richness. Portion size is generous and can easily be shared by two.
A lesser entrée was the Stracotto di Cingiale con Fettucine ($16), braised boar with vegetables on fettucine. The pasta, again, was fresh and delicious. The tomato sauce was mild, with finely cut vegetables. The boar, however, was a bit sparse, and although braised, could have been more tender.
We enjoyed the Rotolo Trecolori ($13), enticingly bright green, orange and red. The crêpes, filled with spinach, carrots and red peppers, are rolled, sliced and served with a pesto cream sauce. The freshness of the vegetables was a nice counterpoint to the richness of the sauce. Albeit on the sweet side, this dish was a winner.
Piccolo Forno pizza-delicate and divine-is among my favorites in town. Savor it slowly, maybe with a glass of red wine. Branduzzi cooks his pizza more slowly and at a lower temperature than Neapolitan pizza to produce a thin crust that is crispy at the edges. Toppings here can be rich, but are added with a light hand.
We tried two pizzas-both were fabulous. We started with a new addition to the menu, Pizza with Speck e Mascarpone ($12). The signature crust is spread with crushed tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Then each slice is topped with an almost translucently thin slice of speck (a cured ham similar to prosciutto) and a generous spoonful of mascarpone. This dish was decadent yet light, and right on target.
A more familiar but also great choice was the Quattro Formaggi ($13), a salty, creamy blend of fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola, crotonese and ricotta cheeses.
Branduzzi recommends another new dish that we didn't try-the Focaccina Cruda ($13)-a flat, stuffed pizza with fresh mozzarella, proscuitto, arugula and tomato. The focaccina is defined by its cooking process: The chef cooks the dough until it puffs; removes it from the oven; cuts it open; stuffs it and places it back into the oven to finish.
Piccolo Forno also offers several homemade soups and paninis. There are many dishes suitable for vegetarians; however, fewer dishes are suitable those who avoid gluten or carbs.
An area for expansion on the menu could be the addition of side vegetables. Although salads and the Verdure Miste appetizer are available, sides of asparagus, broccoli or greens would be welcome. A la carte vegetables could help balance out the richness of the entrees and maybe reduce the diner's guilt just a little.
For dessert, there are two homemade options. One is the tiramisù ($5.50), a traditional version with a hint of lemon flavoring-fine, but not amazing. Cakes constitute the second. These are of various sorts that Carla Branduzzi makes on weekends, as time permits.
Other desserts are gelati, bomba, sorbet and tartufi imported from Italy. Although I generally prefer to see desserts made in-house, I did love the limoncello tartufo, a refreshing ball of lemon gelato wrapped around a limoncello center and then rolled in meringue sprinkles.
Service was mixed: On the first visit during the weekend dinner rush, the server was harried. Food was delivered promptly but with no extra words or smiles. She also was unable to identify the cheeses and meats on the appetizer platter; she promised to check but did not.
On the second visit, we had a much better server. She had a contagious enthusiasm for the food and sold us with her recommendations.
Piccolo Forno is the right place to take friends and loved ones for a nice casual dinner, and you will be pleased at the moderate cost for a very satisfying meal. Don't forget to take your wine. "Bring a wine from Tuscany," chef Branduzzi says with a laugh.
3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412/622-0111, piccolo-forno.com
Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Salads: $6-$9; pizza: $10-$13; pasta: $13-$16; panini: $6.50-$7.50; desserts: $5.50. Reservations for parties of more than four, street parking, major credit cards, BYOB (corkage $5 per bottle wine and $3 per person beer), wheelchair-accessible, no smoking.
Valentina revels in the many pleasures of food. She can find bliss in foods high and low: a crunchy, sweet fall apple, a humble but marvelous french fry or a heavenly seven-course French meal. A graduate of Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, Valentina has worked in several local restaurants, gaining an appreciation for the challenges of delivering a quality restaurant experience. Valentina grew up in a Greek family in Chicago. She moved to Pittsburgh from San Francisco 15 years ago, and has traveled and eaten widely in the United States and in Europe.