Storefront Sustenance

Piccolo Due’s location in a mini-mall belies its inviting atmosphere and long list of Northern Italian specialties

Trying to pin a label on Piccolo Due, the year-old spinoff of Liberty’s popular Piccolo Paese, is daunting. At first blush, this interesting spot might seem an unlikely place to find quality Italian fare. But, as is often the case, first impressions are confounded by several disparate factors.

First there’s the location, on the commercial, restaurant-heavy strip of Route 211 in Middletown. Located in one corner of the Stoneridge mini-mall, it’s the sort of spot where you’d expect to find an Applebee’s or a Friendly’s, and the large neon sign declaring “Ristorante” wouldn’t be misplaced on such an establishment.

Inside, however, the lighting in the spacious storefront is warm and shadowy. The walls, red and glossy black, are softened by diaphanous yellow curtains, and the carpeted dining room floor promises (and delivers) a restrained sound level. The staff is dressed in black, yet the ambience isn’t Valley chic, or bistro, and definitely not Valley rustic. Let’s call it “fine dining” with a slightly formal European twist. Piccolo Due does things “just so,” carefully but without preciousness or pretension. As the dining room gradually filled on a recent Friday night, it became obvious that the restaurant doesn’t fit a particular niche. Diners arrived both dressed-up and in casual garb. There were obvious regulars, couples seriously gussied up for a date, birthday celebrators, and a smattering of families with well-behaved children. For all of them, Piccolo Due is accommodating. Maybe that’s the niche.

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Within moments of being seated, you’ll be served with bread and olive oil for dipping. The bread was okay, the flavorful oil nicely spiced and tangy. There’s a small, good-enough wine list with several affordable offerings (we opted for a safe Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay at a not-bad $28). Judging from the animation of nearby diners, the colorful cocktails are potent as well as copious.

The regular menu is manageable and offers a good variety of Northern Italian standards. But before you get a look at it, your server will launch into a list of daily specials that’s long and involved enough to confuse any but the most attentive listener. The dishes are described, rather than named, so you’ll have to ask to discover that the chicken with this and that is, say, Piccolo Due’s version of Pollo Caruso. You’ll also have to ask about the price, which is a good idea since the specials generally hover at a price point higher than the dishes on the regular menu. Luckily, the waitresses are quite prepared to repeat themselves more than once, though they too get a little confused when called upon to depart from the script. The specials are mostly market-driven, a result of chef/owner Baco Vulaj’s finds on his daily forays to the Hunts Point market.

Presentation can be quirky. An appetizer of prosciutto and figs featured an unfurled carpet of prosciutto di Parma (the milder, pinker version) laid over a bumpy floor of perfectly ripe, halved figs. It was not beautiful to gaze upon, yet it was generous in size and — most importantly — delicious. The asparagus with Parmesan, however, came in a handsome, almost geometric plating, with the dainty asparagus tips shaped into a chevron, crisped with browned Parmesan (a tasty pairing), and accompanied by a big round of broiled portabella mushroom and an oblong of roasted red peppers floating in a tangy, deeply rich balsamic vinaigrette.



piccolo due interior
Soft and warm: Yellow curtains and low lighting set the mood in the dining room

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We decided to share a third appetizer, a half-portion of the day’s ricotta and spinach ravioli (all pastas are available in half portions). We were rewarded with succulent and delicate fresh-made pasta pockets brightened by a light, fresh tomato sauce — a simple, authentically Italian combination.

Branzini — the flaky, sweet, Mediterranean sea bass — was on offer “any way you’d like it.” Seeing our confusion at this open-ended choice, our waitress enumerated a number of possibilities, and we settled on Branzini Provinciale. The sautéed fish, generously topped with chopped shrimp, scallion, and tomato, was a gossamer breath of summer in the midst of the Hudson Valley chill. Chef Vulaj considers his versions of whole branzini to be among his signature dishes.

Pollo Caruso was a surprise. The pounded-flat scallopines of free-range chicken breast, topped with thin slices of prosciutto, tomato, and healthy rounds of fresh mozzarella, were treated with the respect and restraint usually reserved for veal. It was a less filling but more elegant rendition than expected and a firm reminder of just how fine — juicy, tender, and flavorful — poultry can be.

The don’t-miss dessert is homemade ricotta cheesecake. Served warm, the texture of this sweet, with its hints of citrus zest and anisette, was truly special. We also tasted a pretty good crème brûlée which, that evening, was a little too brulée.

Piccolo Due, we think, is the sort of place that gets better with familiarity, as you learn how to integrate your own appetite with its offerings. It is the polar opposite of the “all-you-can-eat” Italian (which almost always features southern rather than northern cuisine). After appetizers, a half-portion of pasta, entrée, coffee, and dessert, we felt well- rather than over-fed.

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Piccolo Due
Open Tues.-Fri. 12-3 p.m., 4-10 p.m.; Sat. 4-11 p.m. Appetizers $5-$12, entrées $16-$32, desserts $7.
731 Rte. 211 East, Middletown. 845-695-6860


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