Nautical ropes hang from the ceilings like drapery. Here and there are photos of seaside scenes: sailboats adrift and men working with fishing nets. And parked in the back is a vintage, aqua-green Piaggio Ape—well, just the front half, looking like a chopped up Vespa. Not only that, but there’s an unexpected sight on the dashboard—calamari, lobster, fish, and scampi sticking out from a bed of ice.
Stepping into Piccola Cucina Estiatorio is like spending a lazy afternoon on the coast of Sicily. Light streams through the big windows into the wide-open dining room, as chatter from the Italian-speaking staff occasionally reverberates. It’s not just seafood that is the focus at this SoHo restaurant, which just opened in March, but specifically Sicilian seafood, imported daily.
“The waters of Sicily are more salty,” said chef and restaurateur Philip Guardione, “so the fish is more tasty.” A different fish is featured every day. Guests can hand-pick from the seafood cart, then order their fish cooked according to their preferred preparation, along with an accompanying side dish.
Guardione is convinced almost everything from the island is more flavorful. From the famed citrus fruits to the flour for making pasta, Sicilian ingredients cannot be replaced, said Guardione, who also operates two other Sicilian restaurants under the Piccola Cucina Group in New York City. He insists on using them in his dishes.
Guardione hails from the town of Francavilla di Sicilia, which, he explained, retains more of the Greek influence, among the long line of colonizers who once inhabited Sicily and left behind their culture. The ancient Greeks were the first documented occupiers, followed by the Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, and Arabs.
Greek cooking is simple: Grilling is a common preparation, and food is lightly seasoned, typically with olive oil, capers, salt, and pepper. “There are no more than two or three [main] ingredients in each dish,” Guardione said. And absolutely no butter in the kitchen.
So a plate of Sicilian sardines, simply grilled, allows the fish to shine. They possess that characteristically strong sardine flavor, but are not oily at all. Their intensity is cut with slices of lemon and diced tomatoes.
In an orange-fennel salad, dressed only with olive oil, the ever-so-sweet Sicilian oranges complement crunchy wild fennel, with sprinkled fennel fronds adding a dash of herbaceousness ($10).
Refreshingly, Guardione doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The recipes at Piccola Cucina Estiatorio are all traditional and feature Sicily’s specialty ingredients. “I don’t do anything different from my grandmother,” he said.
Sicily is known for its diverse array of antipasti, or appetizers, especially fried snacks like arancini. These fried rice balls are seasoned with saffron and stuffed with melted mozzarella and beef ($11). Eating them is like having risotto in miniature form.
Each region of Italy has its unique types of pasta, and in Sicily, the classic is busiati. This noodle is shaped like pieces of rope, loose coils with openings in between—all the better for picking up accompanying sauces. Traditionally, the pasta is shaped by hand around a rod. At Piccola, Guardione pairs the pasta with bits of branzino, julienned lemon, and cherry tomatoes. The strong acidic notes make the dish pleasantly light ($19).
Meanwhile, Mount Etna, an active volcano on Sicily’s east coast, spews mineral-rich volcanic ash that turns the soil incredibly fertile. The earth there gives rise to many distinctive foods. Guardione uses porcini mushrooms and black truffles grown on Mount Etna to make an aromatic ragù for a dish of wild boar meatballs ($14). These lean meatballs, sourced from Sicily, and mixed with fennel seeds, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, and other spices, are excellent on their own. But that ragù, with an almost woodsy character, gives the dish extra oomph.
The terroir also lends potency to Sicilian wines. The wine list, curated by restaurant manager Alfio Scrivano and Guardione’s wife, Monica Monfasani, features small-scale wineries. “Because of the active soil, when you taste the wine, they taste like something that’s alive,” Scrivano said.
Almonds make a big showing in traditional Sicilian pastries and sweets. For a light dessert, try the almond milk pudding, silky smooth and topped with sliced almonds, mint, and strawberry coulis ($10).
Now, if only Guardione would add a napping hammock to the back of that cute Piaggio Ape, it would be the full Sicilian experience.
Piccola Cucina Estiatorio
75 Thompson St. (between Spring & Broome streets)
5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Friday & Saturday