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North Side Review: Piccolo

By Laura Oppenheimer in Food on Oct 5, 2007 3:30PM

2007_10_piccolo.jpgOn a recent Monday night, Chicagoist stopped in to Piccolo, the new panini-bruschette-gelato restaurant on 859 N. Damen. The place was empty, save for the two people working behind the counter. And while we can't hold it against them — Mondays aren't known for being a big dining out night — it set the tone for a meal that was most frequently commented on with, "huh?" Which isn't to say that Piccolo is bad, because it isn't. The panini and gelato are spot on. But for us, the atmosphere of the small corner restaurant was off, enough so that we don't know if we would go back to eat a meal there.

But first, the food. Piccolo has four offerings: panini ($6-$8), bruschette ($2/piece), salad ($7.50) and gelato ($3.50). On our most recent visit, we tried the panini, which comes served with either a bag of chips or a small artichoke tomato salad (though the menu advertises them as coming with a "side salad of your choice"). The first panini Chicagoist tried was the turkey breast with brie and seasonal preserves. This combination worked really well, and the thick slabs of brie, decadent to be sure, were delicious warmed by the panini press. We also indulged our vegetarian tendencies by trying the fig-olive tapenate with arugula and fontina panini. The fig-olive spread is one we'll be sure to try and recreate at home.

The brain behind the gelato is Eddie Navar, who learned his craft at Hot Chocolate — and learned it well. There are standard flavors to pick from, but the good stuff is the seasonal and more exotic flavors. The lemon basil was to die for. When we tried the mixed berry, we actually could taste layers of berry flavors. The grapefruit (which was more of a sorbet than gelato) was a little on the icy side but was still delicious. We recommend a trip just for the gelato, especially if the global-warming-induced weather we're experiencing this week continues.

But now, onto the atmosphere of Piccolo. Being in an empty restaurant is never fun. But what is less fun than that is eating in an empty restaurant that is playing Johnny Cash's "American IV: The Man Comes Around." You will remember that this is the album with Hurt on it. Not really what we want to hear when munching on a sandwich. And while the plates were "real", it would have helped a little to have actual metal forks and knives, instead of the disposable plastic kind.

Our other complaint has to do with their beverages; there were none that we wanted to drink, because they don't have a liquor license or a BYOB policy. We find it hard to conceptualize eating a trio of bruschette without an accompanying glass of wine. "We'll have the proscuitto, sweet onion and bel paese bruschette with a Diet Coke?" Not really working for us.

Perhaps our expectations are just a little off. It might be that Piccolo doesn't even want to offer a great eat-in experience, and instead would rather concentrate on to-go orders. But then why even go to the trouble of gutting and re-doing the space? Luckily, the gelato is so good that it doesn't matter where you eat it.

Piccolo is located at 859 N Damen Ave; (773) 772-3355.