Inspiration, but not consistency; Restaurant: Piccolo's has lots of customers, too few waiters and a menu full of peaks and valleys; SUNDAY GOURMET


It always surprises me that Columbia doesn't have more nice restaurants. (I'm not counting chains.) There's a huge, affluent and fairly sophisticated customer base there. Who knows? Maybe that's why Piccolo's was packed on a Wednesday night.

Or maybe it was the return of chef Michael Wagner, who was in charge of Piccolo's kitchen for three years, developed a following and then left to open Planet Hollywood. He moved on to the Tomato Palace in Columbia and is now back at Piccolo's, with a new menu of contemporary Italian cuisine.

Piccolo's dining rooms are contemporary as well. Soft contemporary. The large, airy space features a central bar, while the rooms on either side have glass walls and a black-and-white color scheme, taken from their floor tiles, with touches of tomato red. It's a good-news, bad-news thing: The lack of carpet and draperies gives the dining rooms a spacious quality even when Piccolo's is packed, but the noise level is high because there's no fabric to dampen it.

The crowd the evening we ate there made our meal somewhat hectic. Our waiter couldn't have been nicer, but he was frantic -- even forgetting to fill all four glasses of wine after he opened the bottle. I could enumerate the long waits for our food, the lack of bread, the unfilled water glasses, but I'm beginning to feel as if I say all that every week -- every restaurant I review seems to be short-handed.

This wasn't one of those times when you feel enraged because you're being ignored and the dining room is half-empty. We just felt like asking for our check when we ordered in case we didn't see the waiter again.

Four of us started with a couple of specials, a salad and a cold antipasto. The waiter forgot the cold antipasto, which worked out fine because my entree, the chef's special, came with a cup of the soup of the day. It was a delicate onion soup made with five different varieties of onions topped with a cheese-dusted crouton. Happily, it lacked the thick lid of melted cheese that can make onion soup too heavy for a first course.

There's loads of talent in Piccolo's kitchen, but some dishes aren't as well-thought-out as they might be. Case in point, the chef's special. The semi-boneless duck was fine, with a pleasingly reticent raspberry sauce. (It didn't, in other words, taste like dessert.) But the duck sported too much cracked black pepper. It lay on a bed of wild rice, which was fine, and the red cabbage alongside worked, too. But slices of apple between the rice and the duck? Too much going on in one dish.

If I were using 50-year-old balsamic vinegar on sushi-grade yellowfin tuna, as the menu promised, I wouldn't dilute the effect by topping the fillet with smoked salmon, capers and fresh mozzarella. I wouldn't serve the fish well-done when the customer ordered it medium. And I wouldn't slice the tuna like a loaf of bread. In spite of all that, the quality of the fish shone through, and the roasted potatoes and snowpeas were artful accompaniments.

Piccolo's tuna made its first appearance in a carpaccio appetizer. It came encrusted with black peppercorns and garnished with crisply fried onions. The glisteningly fresh raw tuna would have been better sliced thinner, but the contrast of tastes and textures is inspired.

An appetizer of artichoke hearts topped with crab meat and prettily sauced with aioli is both elegant and comforting. And a salad of greens, Gorgonzola cheese, ungainly (but tasty) slabs of beefsteak tomatoes and more of those crisp onions didn't have as much finesse as our other first courses but pleased us all the same.

The best of our main courses was from the regular menu, not a special. This was a creamy risotto just tinged with saffron and bursting with large shrimp, scallops, tender squid and mussels. A fat, tender veal chop with mushrooms in a fragile wine-scented sauce was almost as ingratiating. The surprisingly fine spaghetti with marinara that came with it made me wish we had ordered more pasta.

There are no surprises among the desserts, all made in house. Piccolo's airy but satisfyingly rich tiramisu is stellar, while the chocolate mousse is incredibly dense and chocolatey. Someone in the kitchen had gone overboard with the wine in the zabaglione, but its blackberries, strawberries and blueberries were plump and still hinted of summer flavors. Best of all was the ginger cheesecake (for some reason served in a wineglass) with an exquisite creme anglaise.

Although our meal had its ups and downs, there were enough ups that I can see why Piccolo's is as popular as it is. I'd make sure on my next visit, though, to eat there at an off hour.

Place cubed eggplant and zucchini in large colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand 30 minutes, then rinse well and pat completely dry.

Heat 4 tablespoons oil in large heavy skillet over medium heat until hot. Add eggplant and zucchini and saute, stirring constantly, 10 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.

In same skillet, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. When hot, add onions and saute 10 minutes, stirring. Add red peppers and garlic and saute, stirring, 5 minutes more. Return eggplant and zucchini to skillet.

Stir in tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, thyme and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Taste and season with additional salt, red pepper flakes and thyme, if desired. (If not using immediately, cool to room temperature and refrigerate, covered, in nonreactive dish. Reheat, stirring, in skillet over medium heat until warm.)


Food: ** 1/2

Service: **


Where: 7090 Deepage Drive, Columbia

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5.25-$8.95; main courses, $11.95-$21.95

Call: 410-381-8866

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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