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Il Piccolo

A culinary oasis in strip mall country

by Dawn Keable

1450 Atwood Avenue, Johnston
Open Mon.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 5-10 p.m.
Lunch served Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk-level access

If this had been our first date, it might have been our last. Nothing to do with our meal. That was the saving grace of the evening. The before and after were what was so trying.

Before: Andre's excessive primping routine actually included a shoe shining -- a little time-consuming considering my weak-with-hunger state. After: a wild ride home, complete with torrential downpours. (If you can see the road, Andre, how come we keep hitting the rumble strips?) Thankfully, Il Piccolo was a much-needed oasis in between.

Driving deep into the heart of Atwood Avenue strip mall country, I'd been a little skeptical at first. Could this be any place for a fine Italian restaurant, across the street from KFC with a Subway sandwich shop as a neighbor? But my initial qualms were laid to rest shortly thereafter.

Walking through the front door, we entered through the bar area. The restaurant, through a doorway to the right, was very airy and open. Small, cafe-style tables were scattered throughout, and a contemporary jazz band played for our listening pleasure. I sat beside shuttered, green doors and imagined that they opened onto a lush tropical garden. I felt calmer almost immediately.

We had come to sample the new menu and the innovative cooking of Chef Al, whose arrival from Pot Au Feu and the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando, Florida, had been heralded in the restaurant's newsletter.

If we had come the Thursday before, we could have sampled Al's recreation of the feast from the movie Big Night, set in an Italian restaurant. But it didn't matter. We practically duplicated the meal ourselves.

For starters, we polished off the fresh Italian bread, served with olive oil, embarrassingly fast -- three slices each in the few minutes our waiter took to fill our bar order. The funny part was that we hadn't even ordered mixed drinks, just a glass of Chardonnay for me ($4.95) and a glass of Piccini Chianti ($4.25) for Andre.

The menu was authentically Italian. Translation: we severely butchered the name of every dish we ordered. But hey, we should get some credit for not resorting to the simple "point to what you want" method.

We started with gnocci ripieni ($6.95) and la fregola ($7.50), and although we hadn't planned it, both appetizers perfectly complimented each other. The gnocci, fresh potato-pasta pillows stuffed with four cheeses in a thick creamy white sauce, was deliciously rich. The fregola, steamed clams served in a tomato broth, was much lighter in presentation and tasted almost refreshing.

For his main course, Andre ordered nodino ai ferri, and he had no remorse about ordering the most expensive item on the menu. (I was paying, after all.) At $18.95, the grilled veal T-bone steak was worth every penny.

The juicy cut of meat was at least one inch thick and heaped high with mushrooms. Surrounding the veal was an army of roasted red potatoes -- enough to pack for the next day's lunch.

I chose ravioli Masaniello ($11.95) from the list of extensive pasta options. The ravioli was stuffed with a mild blend of roasted eggplant and ricotta cheese and served with tomato, fresh basil, and olive oil.

My only quarrel with the dish was the sauce. My personal preference is for the thick and chunky kind, which this certainly was not. But, on the positive side, it did not overpower the flavor of the ravioli.

With our bellies full, we began our slow waddle to the parking lot. Unfortunately, our reintroduction to the outside world was a little rough. A thunderstorm raged in full force, and its heavy deluge and spectacular lighting show had been timed perfectly with our departure. I blame Il Piccolo for our rude awakening. We would have had a better grasp on reality if the restaurant hadn't so successfully created another world for us.

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