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Café Piccolo in Long Beach Stuffs Thai and Indian Cuisine Into Its Italian

Global Groove
Café Piccolo stuffs Thai and Indian cuisine into its Italian

 

Though many have asked why a paper called OC Weekly also covers Long Beach, the fact that we do gives this reviewer an additional 50 square miles to explore. And thank goodness, because if we stayed exclusively behind the OC border, I might never have gotten to try Café Piccolo—a decades-old Long Beach institution that has no equal in our county.

Moe better food
Russ Roca
Moe better food

From the street, its gaudy neon sign might first lead you to think that it fits into the Italian-restaurant stereotype of spaghetti, meatballs and mobsters. But walk in, and you’ll be immediately entranced—no matter where you sit, a romantic night is guaranteed. Think Lady and the Tramp, not Goodfellas.

To the left, there’s a breezy dining room set up for large parties, with windows that allow laughter to seep out to the street. Farther in, there are more tables under a glass greenhouse, where twinkling lights set the mood. But outside on the patio—with trickling fountains, swaying plants and a fire pit—is where you want to be.

Meals start with crusty mini-loaves of bread so oven-fresh they’ll burn your fingertips. From that point on, expect anything but standard Italian. Heck, they don’t even have spaghetti . . . or meatballs!

Instead, you see influences of Thai, Indian and whatever else Persian-born owner Moe Shabani might put on the specials. But it’s the nam prik sauce that stands out most. They use the Thai staple on a few dishes, most effectively on the Spicy Shrimp appetizer. Bracing, bright, and balanced between sour, spicy and sweet, the nam prik is a garlicky, chili-spiked puddle for the crustaceans to frolic in. With the dish, a cooling cucumber yogurt is served in a thimble, but to use it is to admit the sauce is too hot for the appetizer—it isn’t. In fact, the tomato sauce used on the grilled eggplant is significantly spicier. The lip-numbing brew, which is sweat-inducing but essential, is draped over the eggplant, then topped with dollops of goat cheese and sliced tomato.

Order it in lieu of the escargot, if you want your appetizer to count. The snails might sound attractive on paper, but they were overloaded with too many dried herbs, making each bite bitter. If you need a protein as a first course, you’ll do better with the seaborne variety: In addition to the Spicy Shrimp, there’s the impeccably prepared, cayenne-dusted scallops drenched in a white-wine garlic sauce and wilted red cabbage. Beneath it all, the scallops—like all Café Piccolo’s seafood—are handled with respect.

In any of the restaurant’s shellfish-heavy pasta dishes, clams and mussels are steamed just until their shells pop open. And the squid are cooked particularly well—done so perfectly to a crunchy-crisp it makes you wonder how other places manage to turn it into rubber.

Above all, you’ll marvel how fresh Café Piccolo’s dishes taste. The butter-soaked shrimp scampi seems to sparkle and snap between your teeth. It’s so good you’ll forget protein isn’t the only thing on the plate. Next to it are pasta noodles and a simple vegetable sauté. The veggies are executed better than those in most Chinese restaurants’ stir-fry, and the noodles are textbook al-dente. Both accompany every entrée, which are also preceded by either soup or salad (included in the price).

Though their salad is fine, opt for the soup. Their creamy minestrone—full of potatoes, carrots and thin noodles—looks a bit like Thai tom kha gai and tastes just as compelling. The Indian lentil soup has the aroma of curry and a twist of lemon, demonstrating a worldliness that will be surprising no matter how many times you come back.

The Veal Milano will also pleasantly beguile, with its matchsticks of fresh ginger strewn over the top of the cutlet. How the Asian ingredient ended up on a dish specifically named after an Italian city is a mystery—but who cares? It’s refreshing, just what the rich, butter-soft meat needs.

By the time you move on to scarfing forkfuls of their brick-sized homemade tiramisu or relishing the sour-sweet caramelized apples in the tart tatin for dessert, the only question that remains is why no Italian restaurants in Orange County color outside the lines like Café Piccolo does. But aren’t you glad the Weekly let me go to Long Beach to tell you about it?

 

Café Piccolo, 3222 Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 438-1316; www.cafepiccolo.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Sun.-Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $35-$50, excluding drinks. Beer and wine.

 
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