Piccolo Italiano Ristorante is quite gloriously in the pink


The signature color for Italian restaurants used to be red: red sauce, red wine, red tablecloths. These days Italian places with aspirations prefer pink. Not the girlish candy-pink of tea rooms, but classier, duskier pink. Pink as in pink peppercorns , or a cream sauce dotted with tomato puree, or a rosy setting that soothes the nerves and does awfully nice things to the complexion.

And lest anyone think that pink is for ladies only, Piccolo Italiano Ristorante, one of the pinkest restaurants around, is a top power-lunch spot for Annapolis politicos of both genders. If the legislator of your choice isn't hanging around Fran O'Brien's or Chick and Ruth's, he can probably be found here, tucking into a plate of ossobuco alla Piemontese.

The menu (pink, of course) is as dressed-up as the dining room and the customers. This is an Italian restaurant without a single cacciatore or spaghetti, and precious little red-sauced anything. Ingredients are fresh and elegant, the pasta is handmade daily, and the chef formerly worked at the Cantini d'Italia, a foodie favorite in Washington. However, Piccolo's prices (while not cheap) generally compare favorably with Little Italy's.

A lovely appetizer of homemade mozzarella ($8.95), wrapped in smoked Nova salmon and drizzled with oil, was very fresh and tangy and, despite its generous size, enhanced rather than dulled the appetite. Just as simple, although a lot more down-home, the zuppa rustica ($3.25) was an Italian variant on egg-drop; the chicken broth, enriched with spinach, bits of egg and a dollop of pureed tomato, tastes low-key at first, but increases in intensity as you reach the bottom of the bowl.

Our waiter identified the fettuccine al granchi ($10.95) as his favorite. Understandably. The combination of noodles, crab meat and creamy tomato sauce could have been unspeakably rich, but the nearly weightless quality of the pasta, as well as a lively hit of crushed red pepper, kept all that luxury from turning decadent.

Gamberini imperial belvedere ($15.95) also succeeded in pampering with a light touch. The shrimp were large, and the classic wine-and-butter sauce was as good and garlicky as it ought to be, but this dish's secret weapon was its wealth of oyster mushrooms. The delicate fan-shape fungi absorbed the flavor of the white wine, with appealing results Mother Nature never intended.

Desserts aren't made in house, but as most of them are from Patisserie Poupon, who's complaining? Order the chocolate raspberry cake. It's neither Italian nor pink, but you won't be sorry.

Piccolo Italiano Ristorante

Where: Clock Tower Place, 1410 Forest Drive, Annapolis.

Hours: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.

Features: Northern Italian cuisine, homemade pasta.

Non-smoking section? Yes, but no walls separate smoking and non-smoking areas.

Call: (301) 280-0400.

*** 1/2

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