It wasn't surprising to learn that chef Andres Avayú, of the 2-month-old Piccolo Ristorante, has both a culinary and a fine-arts degree.
The plates Avayú sends out at the tiny, 30-seat restaurant he owns with wife Alison are mini objets d'art. Tender Chianti-braised short ribs ($32), for instance, are served on a stark white plate with a sprig of rosemary. There's a bit of defatted braising liquid on one side of the plate and creamy sun-dried tomato polenta on the other side. Together, the sauce and the polenta look like a study in two shades of brown.
Like every good artist, Avayú is all about details. That polenta wasn't there just because he needed another element on the plate. Its creaminess and zesty background flavor are a perfect complement to beef. There's never anything unnecessary on the chef's plates. As a matter of fact, there's nothing unnecessary on the menu. While so many Italian restaurants offer huge, something-for-everyone menus, Piccolo serves just six non-pasta entrees. Avayú concentrates on what he does well.
Piccolo catches your eye from the street with its bold burgundy paint and simple white sign. The same color is used on the walls inside the simple dining room. During the course of service, we learned that Alison Avayú and her brother Josiah Garrison are the wait staff. Service is excellent, which is kind of what you'd expect when an owner is also your server. But you sit close enough to other diners to want to make menu recommendations. It's an intimate room.
Appetizers weren't as overwhelmingly good as entrees. Meatballs ($14), served with house marinara and basil-whipped ricotta, had a nice flavor, but were a bit tough. A deconstructed Caesar salad ($10) — in which romaine leaves are left whole, served on a salad plate with shaved Parm-Reg, croutons and dollops of dressing — didn't come together very well. And it was hard to find the eggplant in eggplant involintini ($9), a baking dish of ricotta, mozzarella and marinara. It was just too gooey.
But then, we split an order of Amatriciana ($17), fusilli lunghi bucati tossed in the classic tomato-based sauce with caramelized onions, crushed red pepper and pancetta. This is an exceptional dish. As is Avayú's style, it's garnished with one perfect flash-fried basil leaf. The chef also makes gnocchi and a different ravioli almost every night. The pasta list also includes penne alla Norma ($16) and shrimp aglio e olio ($26).
The entrees include salmon, crab-crusted mahi and chicken, but we were all in the mood for beef, and have been jokingly calling this place Piccolo Chop House. So we ordered a tender, grilled veal chop ($34) served with superb white truffle-porcini risotto. Filet mignon ($32) was served with garlic-and-herb-roasted potatoes. Full side orders of almost every vegetable can be ordered a la carte. I heartily recommend the sun-dried-tomato polenta ($8).
For dessert, Avayú makes incredible hazelnut-infused meringues ($8). He's been eating them since he was a kid, part of his Chilean-American upbringing here in South Florida. He also prepares a very good chocolate and raspberry panna cotta ($8) and crème brulee ($8), but desserts change almost nightly.
The chef's professional career includes time at Pa DeGennaro's in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and alongside chef Allen Susser at Chef Allen's in Aventura. Avayú also helped create the menus at Trattoria Il Migliore in North Miami Beach, one of my favorite neighborhood Italian spots.
At Piccolo, Avayú's broad Italian experience meets the refinement of Susser in dishes I hope to be enjoying for years to come.
2826 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Dinner Monday-Saturday
Reservations: Strongly recommended on weekends
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Quiet
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free and metered spaces