A new dining destination promises the lure of a new adventure – even when the destination is set at the end of a strip mall. That is the location of Piccolo Trattoria, recently opened on DeNow Road in Pennington, a little over a mile north of I-95 on Route 31, in one of those new strip malls that are springing up faster than grey hairs on my head.
Situated at the end of the new plaza, Piccolo Trattoria is similar to several other shopping center venues having a traditional pizzeria on one side and a sit-down restaurant next door. The restaurant offers two dining rooms, one larger and windowed, the other by the open kitchen but interior. On this Saturday evening at about 9, there was no wait for a table, although the Trattoria was busy in both rooms. My friend and I were seated in the interior room and, while it was interesting to watch the chefs, we were conscious that the room was noisy and more hectic.
The waiter was not overly friendly (a good thing) and know-ledgeable about his menu, rattling off the several specials from memory and giving us a good introduction to a dish made with a fish we had never heard of before, a delicate Mediterranean white fish called Bronzini. Service was prompt and our waiter attentive to empty water glasses.
The set menu is extensive, covering the range of the traditional pasta and Italian dishes with some different variations thrown in. There is something for every taste, from plain cheese personal pizza to more daring dishes of veal and fish. We started with a beet salad with pistachios, more than enough for two, which was a delicious change from Caesar salad. Warm bread, always a nice touch, was served with spiced olive oil.
The specials appear ambitious and, in the case of the Bronzini, succeed for the most part. The fish was served whole and filleted, valiantly if not quite skillfully, at the table, accompanied by a light sauce that did not intrude on the subtle flavor of the fish itself. The dessert trolley crept into view periodically, causing a lull in conversations as it rolled past. The groaning board of desserts was a bit daunting actually, but offered something for every taste; particularly sinful-looking chocolate concoctions; cannolis fat and sassy. We tried a Napoleon, which turned out to have a real, old-fashioned custard filling.
The price range is also extensive. The standard pasta, veal, fish or chicken dishes range between $10 and $12. Appetizers can hit the $9 mark and salads $8. The more complex specials can reach the mid-20s – that Bronzini was about $26. Gourmet pizzas are $16.95 and are a generous 16 inches. Smaller individual pizzas are 12 inches and are a modest $8 to $11, more suited to a kid’s appetite.
Ambiance is casual with a modern, sleek decor. Dress is equally casual, T-shirts and jeans sitting next to button-downs and sports coats, although frankly, the sport coat was a tad overdressed. More importantly, families can be completely relaxed bringing kids whose manners are not quite ready for Lahiere’s. The family seated next to us included three boys, ages 11 or 12, coming home from summer camp. It must have been at camp that one of them learned to clean up spilled soda by slurping it up from the table – "waste not, want not" is still a virtue. The casual (and forgiving) atmosphere makes this an excellent venue for the kids to have a first taste of fine dining, a place to try out etiquette, but with simple pizza and soda as a fall back order.
Piccolo Trattoria is a good place to bring friends for an easy night out – BYOB – or to meet up after tennis, golf or the like. While not an intimate, white table-clothed with candles venue for a serious evening out, Piccolo Trattoria is a pleasant, convenient destination for a moderately priced meal in nice surroundings.
Piccolo Trattoria, 800 R Denow Road, Pennington. 609-737-9050. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.