Three weeks ago, the third and latest entry in the Piccola Cucina restaurant chain opened on 75 Thompson Street. Chef and owner Philip Guardione’s franchise of cozy Sicilian eateries has become a phenomenon in the SoHo area in the past few years, and his newest is poised to be his biggest success yet.
Even among New York restaurants, these three restaurants are unusual. Together, they are perhaps the only franchise in the world with three locations in a three-block radius. "Italians want to control everything," jokes Guardione. “Here, I walk for 2 minutes to go to the other restaurant. I can control the business every day. It's better for us.”
While this seems to break every rule of restaurant management, so far it’s worked terrifically. All three restaurants are packed every night, and although Piccola Cucina hasn’t been written up in the Times or appeared in Zagat’s yet, the franchise has an even more important sign of approval—a chic, devoted Italian clientele. Eating there on a Saturday night, rapid, boisterous Italian flows through the restaurant like Chianti. It feels a little bit like watching a Fellini film. “Italians know about food,” says Guardione. “They grow up eating well, and learn to expect high quality.”
Homemade pasta with only a few ingredients, freshly-caught grilled fish—none of it is really new, but that’s kind of the point. As Guardione says, “Sometimes the best recipes are the simple recipes. People want to make very difficult dishes, but I prefer for people to understand what they're eating.” This stripped-down, intimate approach is complemented by the restaurant itself; an open kitchen allows patrons to see their food being cooked, pasta is served fresh out of the pot, and the food is actually inexpensive (I recently had an excellent steamed lobster for $30—the New York equivalent of spotting a unicorn).
And for all their simplicity, Guardione's restaurants are not identical. The Enoteca serves small dish fare that he calls “Sicilian Tapas”; the Osteria specializes in larger dishes "for people who want to eat a lot"; the Estiatorio, the newest and largest, specializes in seafood. Modeled after a Sicilian fish market, that restaurant features floor to ceiling windows, nautical ropes on the walls, and a small Piaggio truck in the back. It's certainly a departure—with its 50+ seats, it's barely even piccola. Yet it still feels intimate.
Chef Guardione's three restaurants are:
Piccola Cucina Enoteca, 184 Prince Street
Piccola Cucina Osteria, 196 Spring Street
Piccola Cucina Estiatorio, 75 Thompson Street