There's a saying that nothing good ever comes easy, and while Shake 'N Bake may have its fans, it's certainly true that the ongoing rebirth of Lawrenceville's Butler Street has sometimes entailed a painful churning. One day a vacant storefront reopens as a cunning little boutique; the next, your favorite dusty antique store is replaced by an office that turns its mini-blinds to the street. Thus, we greeted the closing of pioneering Regina Margherita, with its welcome Italian casual dining, with trepidation.
The appearance of a sign for Piccolo Forno in Regina's former location raised our hopes once again. Saturday mornings, we frequent Piccolo's café in the Strip to partake of its European-style pastries and savories. On a rainy Tuesday evening, we found its new full-service Butler Street location packed with Lawrenceville's usual generational and cultural mix, conversations bouncing off the brick walls and tile floors.
Piccolo Forno serves Italian food, plain and simple. You won't find any southwestern-style penne or pineapple as a pizza topping here; each pizze, panini and pasta on the menu is listed under its Italian name, with an ingredient list containing nothing that would not have been on the table in Italy of old.
An appetizer of fagioli all'uccelletto -- beans cooked with tomatoes and herbs -- was, as the menu noted, simply prepared. Our taste buds strained for the one note that would promote this dish from satisfying to surprising or perhaps even superlative, but it wasn't there. With kidney beans substituted for cannellinis, and a thick tomatoey sauce seasoned with dried herbs and fresh parsley, this hearty preparation had the character of an Italian vegetarian chili.
Piccolo Forno offers several tempting salads; with ingredients like roasted red pepper, eggplant and imported tuna, each seems substantial enough to serve as a meal in itself. Insalata mista, a traditional mixture of greens, tomatoes and onions, generously topped with crumbled Gorgonzola cheese in a light vinaigrette, was large enough to share as a side salad for two.
The pizzas are made with fresh, traditional ingredients, and an entire side of the menu is devoted to pizze and calzones. We ordered the salsiccia e cipolle with crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sausage and onions. The latter, being basically raw, competed with the more subtle flavors of fresh mozzarella and sausage, and the pizza's crust was less than perfectly crispy, the tip of a slice flopping over even when freshly served. But the overall flavor was complex, lively and obviously homemade.
Piccolo Forno's other offerings include a smattering of panini -- sandwiches on fresh focaccia bread -- and pasta. Leaving the lighter panini to a future lunchtime visit, we tried the orrechiette con ragu di agnello -- orrechiette pasta topped with a tomato-lamb ragu and melted mozzarella. This appeared to have been cooked, then baked, so that some of the delicate orrechiette were burned to hard little shells. Others were chewy, and some bites of lamb were not as tender as they could have been, either. Then there was the melted cheese, which has the potential to redeem just about any meal in our book -- except when there's not enough of it.
After dinner, we faced a tempting selection of desserts. Piccolo Forno's tiramisu has a cakey character, with custard taking a back seat to ladyfingers and cocoa. The flavors were all sweetly in balance, though, with only a subtly alcoholic trace.
In trading one traditional, casual, affordable Italian eatery for another, Lawrenceville has maintained a fine equilibrium. We found Piccolo Forno sincere in its efforts to offer fresh, authentic Italian cuisine at an incredible value of $10 or less a plate, but uneven in the quality of the food it delivered. Nevertheless, its popularity is deserved as a place to sit down to reflect upon Lawrenceville's revitalization, and to refuel for its future success.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars