An under-the-radar Sicilian spot where sardine lovers will feel right at home

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Few places in the world offer a cuisine as eclectic as that of Sicily. Just 87 miles from the coast of North Africa and at the center of global trade routes that have brought new foodstuffs and spices over the millennia, it has been ruled successively by Greece, Rome, Germanic tribes, the the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, France, Spain and finally Italy which did not take possession of the island until 1860. Sicilian gastronomy reflects all these influences to one degree or another.

Often overlooked, Piccola Cucina is an outstanding Sicilian restaurant tucked away in Soho.

A couple in the foreground conversing, with crowded tables behind them along the wall.

The restaurant can become crowded and noisy after 6:00 p.m.

Sicilian contributions have long been a cornerstone of Italian-American cuisine, but recently we’ve had an influx of restaurants taking a more modern approach, including Piccola Cucina Estiatorio. Located near the corner of Spring and Thompson streets in Soho, the name implies that the menu focuses on the Greek influences that permeate Sicilian cuisine (“estiatorio” is a classier type of Greek restaurant than a rustic “tavern”). And indeed, seafood is at the center of this very good establishment which seems to have largely escaped the gastronomic journals and food critics since its opening in 2017.

The restaurant is part of a chain whose owner and chef is Philip Guardione. He was born near the city of Catania, on the southeast coast of Sicily, in the shadow of Mount Etna. He now owns and runs three Sicilian-themed restaurants with the same name in Manhattan, one in Ibiza and another in Red Lodge, Montana. Piccola Cucina means “little kitchen”, and not only does the kitchen shrink, but also the dining room, with tables close together, which fills up every evening from around 6 p.m. So get there early if you’re hoping to snag a walk-in table.

The place is decorated with nautical ropes that hang from the ceiling and also tie a selection of wine bottles to the walls – an expensive pan-Italian list with a disappointing number of bottles from Sicily. A handful of spectacular entries await you. In keeping with its theme of Greek and Sicilian cuisine, a plate of five grilled sardines ($20.50) is presented, a generous number for the price, sprinkled with kalamata olives and the slightest sprinkle of dried herbs.

Whole fish piled up with black stripes from the grill.

Grilled sardines are an essential aperitif.

A giant pile of fried seafood.

The seafood fritto misto is super shareable.

Fried calamari, considered bar food internationally, is Sicily’s most famous culinary contribution. Here it’s part of a gorgeous seafood fritto misto, which includes fish, shellfish, prawns – and there’s even a breaded, deep-fried sardine that looks like it’s tossing off the top of the pile. However, note that the creature is harder to eat in its breaded form. (Sardine lovers should order the grilled fish.)

The browned rice balls with green and white sauces underneath.

Piccola Cucina Estiatorio’s rice balls are filled with stew.

Named after the chef’s hometown, arancino Catanese ($15.95) is a trio of small fried rice balls. A stew of meat spills out as you slice through them, and two sauces – one white and dairy, the other green and plant-based – serve to boost the flavor. What these rice balls lack in size, they almost make up for in taste – although if you’re used to the gargantuan rice balls that come out of Sicilian pizzerias, these may be a little underwhelming.

An entire section of the menu features raw seafood, which has apparently become popular in modern Sicily. Trio di carpaccio ($23.95) carefully lines up boards of what could be Japanese sashimi on top of another fish to create a visual spectacle. The fish is especially delicious when engulfed alternately with slices of tangerine which visually enliven the frozen presentation.

The balance of the menu is mainly pastas, two of which I particularly recommend. Highlighting the primacy of eggplant among Sicilian vegetables (a preference that may have been brought over from North Africa and the Middle East), Maccheroni Norma features strings of hand-rolled and shredded pasta in a sauce tomato with ricotta and purple pear-shaped cubes. vegetable. Note that another worthy dish, a largely unbreaded eggplant parmigiana, is listed among the appetizers, though it could serve just as well as a starter. Another must-order pasta is the short, grooved, tubular paccheri ($24.95) tossed in a hearty octopus stew. The eight-armed cephalopod gives the sauce a slightly gooey, chewy texture that literally holds the whole dish together.

Long thick strands of hand rolled pasta with red sauce and grated cheese on top.

Maccheroni Norma sports the famous Sicilian eggplant sauce.

An oblong metal serving bowl with thick tubular pasta and brown sauce.

Piccolo paccheri with octopus stew.

There are a few side dishes to skip though, including a Greek salad that arrived almost undressed, with so much feta cheese it overshadowed the other ingredients. Unfortunately the cannoli had shells so thick they could have broken a tooth and tasted like they had been filled long before – which breaks the main cannoli rule that they should just be filled to order.

The wine list is full of bottles over $100, suggesting that Piccola Cucina Estiatorio is at least partly aimed at the big spenders, which may have something to do with the expectations created by the restaurant’s Ibiza branch. and the international atmosphere he hopes for. to imitate. Still, individual glasses of wine are more forgiving, including an Etna Bianco Mofete ($16) made from carricante and catarratto white grapes grown in volcanic soil. Flinty and refreshing, it accompanies almost everything on the menu, especially those grilled sardines and octopus stew.

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