As the novel coronavirus crisis has dragged on and on, the pastry case at Piccolina has gotten a little less sweet.
The small Italian cafe, which became a more affordable, portable alternative to established sibling Centrolina when it opened across Palmer Alley NW a little more than a year ago, has seen the breakfast and lunch crowd surrounding downtown dwindle during the pandemic. With customers showing up later in the day, chef-owner Amy Brandwein has reconfigured the restaurant to meet a new demand for dinner. That includes rotating more savory baked goods through the wood-burning oven that maintains a temperature of around 650 degrees and fuels just about everything in the shop.
When customers enter Piccolina these days, they might point to a lamb blanket, asking staff to reheat a sausage that’s made according to Brandwein’s recipe and wrapped inside croissant dough with mustard and gruyere. They’ll see gougeres stuffed with chicken salad, squares of focaccia with a ratatouille topping, or a puffy pissaladiere, a flatbread covered in potato, tomato, anchovy, and black olives.
“People are very visual,” says Brandwein, who is a finalist for the James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for the fourth year in a row. “They see what’s here, and they’re like, ‘Yes, I want that.’”
Last week, Brandwein began limiting Piccolina’s options between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. — hot dishes are unavailable but walk-ins can still order from the pastry case — so the staff can prep for a reconfigured dinner service. Customers can start with a lineup of $2 tramezzini, Italian tea sandwiches popular in Venice that are meant to go with new cocktails like a Spagliato Bianco (prosecco, Cocchi Bianco, Luxardo and orange bitters) or a frozen Freddo Vin-Cello (red wine, Orangecello, Montenegro Amaro, citrus). The little sandwiches will change frequently, but early options include a variety filled with mortadella, provolone, mustard, and coronichons or one with gravlax, cucumber, dill, and spreadable Robiolina cheese.
Stuzzichino, or snacks, include a charcuterie platter or a serving of charred cuttlefish with Calabrian chile. Four piattni, a la carte portions of meat and fish, range from $12 for a salmon spiedini (skewer) with fennel, cherry tomatoes, and red onion, to $18 for charred lamb belly with salsa verde. Brandwein recommends adding a couple sides to complete a dinner that hovers around $20 but uses the same quality of ingredients found at Centrolina.
“We’re looking or economical cuts ... sort of like what you would get at a trattoria, really kind of rustic food,” Brandwein says.
An all-day portion of the menu is available during dinner hours, so customers can still get smoky ratatouille omelets, porchetta sandwiches, and Brandwein’s 10-layer eggplant Parm. A few months ago, Brandwein made another change in attempt to drum up business while customers were barred from eating at the cafe: she started making Neapolitan pizza.
Although she was worried the pies would prevent people from trying the rest of the menu, she says that hasn’t been the case. They’re still on the menu in three varieties ($14 to $16): a margherita, a diavola with spicy soppressata, and an “FQF,” a funghi quattro formaggi with roasted mushrooms, ricotta, asiago, mozzarella, Parmesan, rosemary, garlic, and pesto. A takeout pizza package ($48) includes two pies (margherita and soppressata), a large arugula salad, a bottle of wine, and two cookies.
Piccolina has expanded its outdoor seating and offers online ordering for pickup and delivery. Brandwein reports the shop had a “gangbusters” Saturday night recently. Although operating a business while COVID-19 cases persist has been “difficult,” she’s encouraged by the support she’s seen even in an area that depends on traffic from office workers.
“We have been able to sustain ourselves based on our existing customer base,” she says. “It’s not really about location, thank God.”
Piccolina is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.