Hot Trash: Munch is a weekly meditation on specific dishes served and consumed within the Greater Portland area. These are not “restaurant reviews,” but merely amalgamations of thoughts and musings highlighting the talent, drive and creativity characteristic of Portland’s vibrant food/drink communities. Use them to do only good, and see for yourself by supporting these people.
In this, the first entry in Hot Trash: Munch, we head to central and southern Italy. Specifically, we’ll be making stops in Abruzzo, Calabria and God's Kitchen itself, Sicily (nicknamed as such for the island’s rich contributions to Italian cuisine and wine). We’ll be sipping Nero d’Avola, rolling around in fresh pasta and saving room for dessert.
Oh, and we’re not leaving Portland—we’re sitting down to a meal at Piccolo.
I may as well get this over with and declare that Piccolo is my favorite restaurant in Portland, hands-down. Whether dining alone, with my equally-smitten girlfriend or as part of a group, I’ve never had a bad experience there. I don’t even think it’s possible. The staff are phenomenal, inspiring human beings with insane resumes, the space is cozy and casual (while maintaining an undeniable sense of elegance), and the menu—which changes frequently—is a perfectly designed exercise in building a customized, multi-course meal.
What I love the most about eating at Piccolo is what I learn when eating at Piccolo—techniques and methodology that I can incorporate into my own cooking at home, charming stories about producers and wineries scattered throughout the country of Italy. I leave each time with a better understanding of a part of the world I’ve never visited, yet—for some unknown reason—feel pulled towards more and more each day despite having not a speck of Italian blood flowing through my Danish veins.
Maybe, it’s the baby octopus.
On a recent solo mission to Piccolo, I started my meal off with a plate of the pulpo—detailed on the menu as, “Cast-iron baby octopus, n’duja dressing, potatoes and radish.” Admittedly, I’ve had some not-so-hot experiences with cephalopods aside from squid around here, especially as of late. Ever eaten a tempura-fried octopus cooked to oblivion, its suckers the texture of rubber bands that have been tossed into a pot of boiling water for a few hours? I have. I’ve also had octopus cooked to perfection, however, and it can be a beautiful thing. This is to be expected when dining at Piccolo.
Baby octopus is a bit of a different story from its adult self. It has a sweetness and salinity to it that stands out even when masked by certain preparations, and little more than a flash in a hot pan yields an extremely satisfying texture—firm, but not “chewy.” It’s also difficult to find around town, so when I see it on a menu, I usually order it.
If it (or anything else) shares the pan with n’duja, I will always order it.
N’duja is a spreadable salami made by combining pork (typically shoulder, belly and fatback) with herbs, spices and Calabrian chile peppers. It is a secret weapon. Put a plate of pasta with red sauce that was started with a base of N’duja next to one that wasn’t, and you’ll see what I mean. It lends anywhere from a mild to insane spiciness to any dish it’s incorporated into and is best consumed for the first time on a piece of toast or via spoon deployment straight to the mouth so as to get acquainted with its fire. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.
At Piccolo, the n’duja—like practically everything else served—is made in-house. It’s also very spicy, and the perfect complement to a dish of sweet, briny baby squid. The pulpo currently on-menu is an exercise in extremes, each bite showcasing the spirited heat of the n’duja, the mellow flavor of the octopus and the bright acidity/earthy character of the radish and mustard seeds, all supported by a base of perfectly crispy fried potatoes and garnished with Italian parsley. It is, in a word, delicious, and served in a cast-iron skillet to boot.
In the 2 or so years that I’ve been eating at Piccolo, ideas and notions I once held about “Italian food” and what that phrase actually means have been shattered entirely. Southern Italian cuisine in particular is so rich in history and depth that I feel I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what it means to cook and enjoy it today, from here. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better introduction to the ingredients, stories and people characteristic of this part of the world without actually going there than a meal at Piccolo—do yourself a favor and kick it off with a plate of the pulpo.