Pasta Bolognese, butternut squash gnocchi and an angus steak panini rest on the granite counter at Piccolo Italian Gourmet in Port Chester. Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
Pasta Bolognese, butternut squash gnocchi and an angus steak panini rest on the granite counter at Piccolo Italian Gourmet in Port Chester.

Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
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It didn't take long after the Italian coffee shop zeppoleme closed in January for another eatery to take its place. The bright, lovely space at 321 North Main St. reopened with a new kitchen and some cosmetic changes about a month ago as Piccolo Italian Gourmet.

Still awaiting their liquor license, expected in about two weeks, the restaurant has remained low key with minimal promotion while it revs up and gets all the kinks out. The owners plan to host a grand opening in mid to late April.

My family and I have had several experiences at Piccolo since it opened Mar. 5. My husband and I even showed up on the second day when the menus were printed on 8½"x11" pieces of paper, not yet formatted and difficult to read. I still find the menu with its 102 items hard to navigate, but once you realize there are 35 different panini and 20 different salads tossed with eight unique dressings, you are on your way.

Co-owner Peter Neglia, whom I met during the past year when he was helping promote The Travelers Club restaurant at Westchester County Airport, had a concept in mind of taking traditional Italian food and putting a modern twist on it when he dreamed up Piccolo. As it came to fruition, Piccolo boasts "high end quality food with a focus on exotic paninis at affordable prices," said Neglia.

Although everything at Piccolo is not yet perfect, the focus on freshly made food is evident, there are some incredible preparations, and so far everything on the menu costs less than $20.

When I say things are not yet perfect, on my last visit they were out of clams, mussels and kale and the Pescara Salad we ordered was made with feta cheese instead of bleu as described on the menu, making the combination of flavors less satisfying. Neglia said these shortcomings were the result of a delay in the food order, but he apologized for the cheese substitution and agreed we should have been notified.

Piccolo will not be open Easter Sunday.

The perfect team and location

Neglia, who grew up in Brooklyn, moved to Armonk when he was a freshman in high school and now lives in Silver Lake. He studied hotel and restaurant management at Westchester Community College and got experience in the restaurant business from a young age since his family owned Christopher's Supper Club in Brooklyn. He said his father taught him everything. In his 20s Neglia got involved in politics and ended up landing a job in county government, starting at the Board of Elections and moving his way up to assistant commissioner of Westchester County Parks in charge of the legacy field program under County Executive Andy Spano. Then he worked in a similar position in Mt. Vernon until Mayor Clinton Young lost his re-election bid and he was out of a job. He then became a lobbyist and a PR person, still dabbling in restaurants since his cousins owned three on Long Island.

"The whole time I was trying to figure out what to do with my life," said Neglia, 43. "I wanted to do something on my own." So he paired up with longtime friend and chef Joseph Sandolo of Greenwich, who has been involved in restaurants for 40 years.

Sandolo oversees the kitchen while Neglia is the administrator of the restaurant, taking care of the day to day operations.

Neglia found an ad on Craig's List for the former zeppoleme location and felt "it could fit with the concept I was trying to do." Two weeks later he signed a contract.

"I just loved the location and the inside and the smallness of it," he said. He liked the open kitchen and its New York City feel.

From the size came the name Piccolo, which means "small" in Italian. This cozy little restaurant seats 24 at tables of two and four plus six at the attractive beige and brown quartz granite bar.

To help carry out their concept, Neglia and Sandolo found and hired Fernando Gomez of Greenwich, who was returning to the area after having trained in Miami with chef Adrianne Caldo at Adrianne's Vineyard and Wine and chef Bryan Adams who does catering for the rich and famous.

"His resume was outstanding," said Neglia. "It was a perfect fit." The fact that Gomez is also a baker and came up with his own "exotic" desserts "is a great asset to Piccolo," he added.

Menu highlights

Besides the many panini and salads, the folded paper menu features soups, antipasti, bruschetta, Italian tapas, pasta and entrées plus a children's menu where each item is named for a family member. The panini are all named for cities in Italy except the turkey combinations which are called Byram, Port Chester and Harrison and the shrimp sandwiches which are named for Port Chester buildings: Castle, Landmark and Mariner.

Neglia recommended the Squid Ink Primavera ($16.75 lunch, $18.75 dinner), squid ink style pasta with mixed vegetables topped with chicken or shrimp in garlic and oil. He also said "the Bolognese sauce is phenomenal," complimented the vodka sauce and suggested anything made with broccoli rabe. Neglia said they have gotten "rave reviews about the rice balls" and put in a good word for the meatballs.

I can attest to the fact that the Piccolo Bolognese ($14.50 lunch, $16.50 dinner) is amazing. For this dish, rigatoni cooked al dente is topped with the restaurant's flavorful, yet surprisingly light meat sauce and garnished with slices of shaved parmigiana. It was so good that I managed to easily eat the entire helping.

The arancini, too, are exceptional. You get two for $9 or three for $12.50. Good-sized, crispy on the outside and stuffed with creamy fresh mozzarella and peas, they are served with a delicious marinara dipping sauce.

Another menu highlight is the Butternut Squash Gnocchi ($9), listed under Italian Tapas. You get a good portion of the soft dough dumplings in a sweet yellow butternut squash cream sauce with chunks of the orange vegetable. This dish is beautifully presented garnished with basil leaves.

The Caesar salad ($8) is listed in bold on the menu for a reason. You get a huge white bowl of romaine hearts, croutons, shaved parmigiana and Piccolo's own

Caesar dressing. While fresh and delicious, it could use a tad more garlic.

Specials

In addition to the large menu, there are 3-4 daily specials including a soup of the day (recently carrot ginger) besides the three soups on the menu. Artichoke tortellini with cream sauce sounded intriguing. The specials are scrawled on a fancy built-in blackboard framed in wood.

Dinner for two

For dinner one night my husband and I shared an avocado salad: romaine lettuce, chunks of avocado, small black beans, halves of cherry tomatoes, green onions, small pieces of cucumber and cilantro, a large portion tossed in a clean-tasting lemon vinaigrette dressing ($9.25).

For entrée I had the Gamberi Pesto ($17.75, $15.75 for lunch) which brought four large shrimp sautéed with green beans, carrots, onions, broccoli, celery and water chestnuts in a fantastic sauce made with kale, parsley, salt, pepper, olive oil and parmesan although the menu says it is supposed to be sautéed with tri-color tomatoes in this special kale pesto sauce. Either way it would be a wonderfully savory dish.

My husband had the mussels in a spicy marina sauce ($11), listed under tapas. They were served with two toast points, the sauce had a nice zing and it was a plentiful portion for a tapa. Two shortcomings, however. The mussels should have been served with a small fork to more easily get the mollusks out of their shells and an extra bowl to use for discarding them.

After experiencing three meals where we ordered entrées, I was surprised that we didn't get any bread, so I asked Neglia about it. He said they had been toying with the idea and would be adding it, probably with olive oil for dipping. Their bread for the bruschetta and panini comes from Good Bread Bakery on New Broad Street.

For dessert we had Piccolo's version of New York cheesecake ($6.50), which has a hint of lemon and a graham cracker

crust. Very light for cheesecake, it was beautifully presented with a blackberry and strawberry garnish.

We had two coffees ($1.50 each), served with a pitcher of warm milk which I appreciate, with our dessert, bringing the tab to $47.50.

On my three visits, service has been generally pleasant and efficient though not yet perfect.

Free delivery

Piccolo offers free delivery within a 10-mile radius with a minimum $10 order, so I called in two panini for delivery to my office and was told it would take 45 minutes. They actually arrived in a half hour or less.

I shared a Calabria ($8): carmelized onions, sliced apples and bleu cheese on ciabatta which was crunchy and provided a good combination of flavors. I also shared a Belmonte ($10): freshly breaded chicken cutlet, mixed greens, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers with herb aioli on ciabatta. Very fresh tasting but a little bland.

Both came with mixed greens on the side tossed with a minimal amount of dressing.

Other desserts

Besides the delightful cheesecake, the chef's own tiramisu, cannoli and chocolate mousse cake are offered for dessert daily plus two types of zeppole, not listed on the menu, for those who miss zeppoleme. Later Gomez may add special desserts such as chocolate mousse or lemon mousse blend from time to time.

Simple décor

When it's sunny, Piccolo, with its many windows, is bright and cheery. Dark wood tables covered with white paper placemats and matching chairs fill the dining room. Tables are set with small votive candles which create a romantic feel as the natural light fades into night.

A large white cup boasting the Piccolo Italian Gourmet logo sits prominently on the granite bar at which patrons are welcome to sit and eat.

White plates bearing a utensil motif decorate café au lait-colored walls. A TV in one corner is tuned to the Food Network. Plants sit on the window sill at one side of the small dining room which is capped off with a synthetic wood floor.

Once the weather turns warm, the front doors can be opened up onto the sidewalk.

Although nessa ristorante next door owns the garden and patio between the two restaurants, Piccolo will have use of them Monday through Friday from 11 a. m.-4 p. m. for lunch and Saturday from 11 a. m. to 3 p. m. for brunch.

Starting in two weeks, brunch will be offered Saturday and Sunday from 11 a. m. to 3 p. m. with cool breakfast items like French toast, Belgian waffles, crepes and a bacon, egg and cheese panini.

Hours and parking

Piccolo is open seven days: 11 a. m.-9 p. m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a. m. to 10 p. m. Friday and Saturday. The plan is to then open from 10 p. m. to midnight Friday and Saturday as a lounge with tapas and drinks "for a high end, sophisticated crowd," said Neglia. "I think that's what's missing in Port Chester-where someone can go with their wife for a drink, a nice lounge for older people."

There will be a wine tap that carries over from zeppoleme which keeps wine fresh, crisp and clean. Wine will be offered on tap, by the glass or bottle. There will also be a full bar menu with whiskeys, gins and cocktails.