Piccolo's at Fells Point, 1629 Thames St., (410) 522-6600. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Major credit cards. ANo-smoking area. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$7.95; entrees, $9.95- $19.95. ***
When Francie's closed, all my certainties about location, location, location quietly died. Here was what seemed to me to be the best location in the city for a restaurant: at the foot of Broadway right on the water. Harborplace has its charms, but Fells Point is quainter and a little less crowded. And customers can find parking on the street.
However, I'm not writing about why Francie's couldn't make it, but why Piccolo's at Fells Point can't miss. A couple of months ago Piccolo's in Columbia opened up a second restaurant in the old Francie's space in Brown's Wharf. When I ate there recently it hadn't been discovered. But it will be.
You can drive there or -- this would be my suggestion -- you can take the water taxi, which lets you out right at Piccolo's door. The restaurant doesn't accept reservations for fewer than six people, but with some 80 outdoor seats and 250 indoors you probably won't have trouble getting a table except on the weekends.
If you want to sit on the water's edge but the only tables left are indoors, don't give it a second thought. The interior is simply an extension of the outdoors, very open with lots of windows and potted palms. The mahogany-stained wood and wine-red, white and navy blue color scheme give the place a sophisticated nautical air -- reminiscent of an old-fashioned luxury liner. The focus of the rooms, which open one onto another, is an exuberant mural by artist Jim Baldwin. Its larger-than-life-size but otherwise startlingly realistic red pepper splashing down in the water is a light-hearted symbol for the whole restaurant.
The chef is Ashley Sharpe, veteran of Hampton's at Harbor Court. The cuisine is Tuscan-inspired, with the emphasis on grilled foods and seafood. It's not a restaurant I would think to bring small children to (the food is sophisticated and fairly expensive), but there were plenty of them there. I suppose they could have one of the plainer appetizer pizzas (fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, roasted garlic and shallots) or perhaps the ravioli di ricotta with marinara sauce.
Be careful though. My daughter, no longer a kid but not the most sophisticated eater, ordered crab cakes laced with basil and sun-dried tomatoes. They were wonderful crab cakes, mostly lumps of back fin deliciously seasoned. But surprise: one was sauced with a creamy red pepper puree (the crab didn't need it, but it was pretty and good), the other with a creamy squid puree. It had an odd purplish color and an even stranger flavor.
That was one of the few missteps of our meal. I loved my meltingly tender grilled veal chop nestled on a bed of caramelized onions, wild mushrooms and fennel. Its sweet richness was a wonderful foil for the simple grilled meat.
Given Piccolo's proximity to the water, it's no surprise that the emphasis here is on seafood. A buttery risotto was bursting with little chunks of salmon, rings of calamari, scallops, shrimp and grit-free mussels in their shells.
I'm not usually a big fan of sea bass, but a special that evening won me over, with beautifully fresh fish grilled and arranged beside a fan of baby asparagus spears topped with roasted red pepper.
If I had to give Piccolo's any advice, I'd say get better bread. The soft breadsticks just weren't up to the quality of the rest of the food. So many local restaurants serve good bread these days that you can't get away with anything less.
I also wouldn't mind seeing a little more thought put into the side dish of vegetables that came with dinner. The fresh green beans looked overcooked and tasted undercooked (not easy to do) and were served with one slice of carrot and one slice of mushroom.
Another option for a side dish, and a very good one, is angel hair pasta tossed with a delicate tomato sauce. Salads are extra; if you get one I recommend the grilled vegetables. Slices of eggplant, squash, red pepper and asparagus -- still warm -- were drizzled with vinaigrette and flanked with thin, delicious slices of toasted foccaccia.
If you want to start with seafood, try the broiled oysters. They're fat and flavorful, with a bit of panchetta (Italian bacon), fennel and a hot crust of Parmesan. For a cold first course, try shrimp wrapped in panchetta and arranged on overlapping, vinaigrette-dressed slices of yellow tomato and Vidalia onion.
Vidalias could have made an appearance again in the zuppa del giorno, cream of Vidalia onion soup; but we opted for a zesty Tuscan white bean soup, thick as chili and served in a mug.
When dessert time came around, our waitress told us they had chocolate-dipped strawberries that evening. I was tempted until she said the kitchen was calling them Three-Mile Island berries pTC because they were so big. Instead, we had an excellent cannoli )) made in-house, an espresso-scented creme caramel, and, best of all, tiramisu. Piccolo's version will remind you why the dessert became so popular in the first place. It manages to be light, creamy, satisfying and wickedly rich all at the same time, with subtle flavors of espresso and Sambuca liqueur.