The exterior of The Yellow Building in the evening. All photos © tablehopper.com.
The interior of the dining room.
Fried Padrón peppers and romesco sauce.
Mixed mustard greens salad with avocado and pickled shallot vinaigrette.
Sausage, red onion, and mozzarella pizza.
Piccino café, next door on 22nd Street.
Well then, look who’s all grown up now? Sheryl Rogat and Margherita Stewart-Sagan’s ~PICCINO~ has definitely come a long way (baby), from their tiny corner space that used to be just down the street, where they were cooking everything out of a pizza deck oven and somehow even had a café counter crammed in there. It was cute, it was charming. It was like a sweet little girl in pigtails. And now the tiny restaurant (piccino is the diminutive of “little” in Italian) has reopened in such a looker of a space—a sunny yellow building over 150 years old—that it even makes you happy just looking at it. (Oh, yellow.) How could it be called anything but The Yellow Building?
It can be a little tricky figuring out how to enter said yellow building: there’s a door on 22nd Street, but it’s not the one you want. Go around the corner to the Minnesota side. See that first door? Nope, that’s not it either. Go a little bit further, by the ramp. Yes, that’s it. Because then you get the chance to admire the two stylish neighbors, DIG wine shop and MAC (Modern Appealing Clothing), two totally worthwhile places for you to blow some cash.
So yes, the feng shui is initially a little funky. And once you walk into the restaurant, you have to figure out who the host is (look for someone with a clipboard)—if no one is there to greet you at that moment, it can feel odd for a second while you’re just standing there. Simply sidle up to the mini bar to the left and ask who’s gonna hook you up with a table. And if you’re trying to do that walk-in thing, you’ll most likely need to order a glass of wine until your spot is sorted, because the place is packed. Yeah, that girl in pigtails is now a very popular teenager, and she is bizzzzeeee—she’s totally got boys (and girls) blowing up her phone. And everyone wants a piece. (Or at least a slice.)
A bigger space means a bigger kitchen and a bigger menu. The female-centric kitchen is led by chef Rachel Sillcocks, a recruit from nopa, and she’s doing a bang-up job translating the Piccino culinary style to the larger venue. And she’s got a fryer—which her team is rocking. To wit: the opening menu featured a starter of tender leek and sorrel fritters with an anchovy yogurt ($9), and recently there were blistered Padrón peppers ($9) with a thin romesco sauce. More, per favore.
I enjoyed the texture of a simple dish of caramelized squash, farro, and almond gremolata ($6), but it should come with a serving spoon (the same could be said of a few of the messier-to-share dishes). I’d also like to see a few more noshy bites beyond the caraway crackers ($3), pickled vegetables ($6), and marinated olives ($5) in the antipasti—I’m not really motivated to start my meal with blue cheese and seasonal fruit ($9) (I’d much rather have that delightful duo for dessert).
Which is why I veer right for the salads. I have always been a fan of Piccino’s salads, and now they’re upping the ante even more. The opening menu’s salad of spicy greens (later mixed mustard greens), mashed avocado, and pickled shallot vinaigrette ($8) was one I wanted daily in my life—very satisfying in its combination of prickle, pickle, and creaminess. Another with spears of marinated cucumbers (pickles lite?), little gems, citrus, juniper, and salty fried capers ($9) was equally brilliant, balanced, and perfectly dressed. And even thought it was a chilly San Francisco night, a summer bean salad with radicchio di Treviso, ricotta salata, and roasted cherry tomato vinaigrette ($9) transported me to somewhere much sunnier (thank you).
There are a couple homemade pastas available each night, like pappardelle with braised rabbit sugo ($15) that came out piping hot (yay) and a complex sauce that my dining partner and I were thoroughly trying to analyze (“Please, recline on the couch—tell us about your relationship with coriander.”). Another night, rustic semolina gnocchi ($14) were served in a broth with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, pecorino shavings, and pancetta. For those expecting the shape typical to potato or ricotta gnocchi, these flat scallop-sized pucks could be a bit disconcerting for a moment, but I liked the creamy center and the mushroom broth with the tang of balsamic vinegar. Be sure to request some bread—this is a plate you’ll want to clean.
Piccino pizzas have always been their own style, with a delicate blond crust and seasonal toppings that strike that flavor note of “just so.” A springtime pisello pizza ($18) with English peas, lovage pesto, and buffalo mozzarella was so good at an opening dinner that I had to order it again on another visit. Mushroom lovers won’t want to miss the earthy funghi pizza ($16), with oyster mushrooms and a crimini pesto, plus creamy stracchino cheese, and paper-thin slices of garlic (but trust, you’ll taste it!). The salsiccia pizza ($13) with housemade sausage, mozzarella, and red onion came with the unexpected addition of parsley (and not just a little), which I wasn’t too thrilled with. Oh, and heat-lovers, don’t be shy with a sprinkle of the bright red peperoncino that comes in a little wooden bowl—eons better than any red pepper you ever shook out of a container at a pizzeria.
There’s also a main dish each night, but when confronted with the choice of a hanger steak ($23) or pizza, I had to get the pizza. I almost went for a roasted rabbit loin ($23) one evening, but my friend and I heeded the siren song of the pizza yet again (it was her first visit). And you’ll want a quorum at your table since the food really lends itself to sharing—it matches the communal spirit of the place.
The vibe in the room here is unlike any other in the city (although there are a few elements that make me think of a Dogpatch nopa). It’s warm, stylish, full of attractive and artsy people I’d be thrilled to meet at a cocktail party, and in spite of the buzz, it oddly never gets very loud (nor too “sceney”). You’ll hear chords from a U2 song or jazz in the background, the occasional laugh from a neighboring table—it’s a happy place. Each time I have dined there, I leave feeling restored—and ready to return.
The architectural firm Sagan Piechota did a smashing job with the space. There’s a black oak bar with room for 12 guests (in Eames stools) overlooking the open kitchen, and the main dining room—which can seat a max capacity of 98—features beautiful cypress communal tables down the center of the room, with reclaimed black oak floors (the room smells sweetly of wood). There are so many great design elements to admire: the dowel and metal chairs in chocolate, the softly glowing globes overhead from FLOS, the artwork, and even the pattern of white wood rafters overhead. It’s one of my favorite dining rooms in the city, and the atmosphere is equally charming for lunch as for dinner.
Unfortunately service doesn’t quite match up to the style of the place (yet). While servers may be kind or well intentioned, I’ve had a couple pretty bumpy service experiences (and other friends have reported some serious flubs as well). I’ll chalk it up to the teenager’s growing pains—she needs braces, or maybe just a retainer. The service style is casual (example: you pour your own water from a carafe on the table), but there are basics that need tuning.
I enjoy navigating the wine list of food-friendly (mostly) European wines and easy-to-understand descriptions, like “crisp, minerally whites” and “country quaffing reds.” The glassware is dual purpose (you get the same shape of glass, whether it’s white or red), and I’ve been happy to have wines served at the proper temperature.
Are you a coffee fanatic? You’ll want to acquaint yourself with Piccino’s café next door (on 22nd Street), where you can get a shot of their exclusive house espresso made through their relationship with Sightglass Coffee (it’s dark and chocolatey and utterly bewitching)—actually, you can also order any coffee drink while dining in the restaurant. But my visit to the café also meant I was able to pick up a treat to enjoy the next morning, baked by café pastry chef Maggie Lukens. It was a little brandied apricot cake tied up in twine, reminding me of the homemade touch of everything here, like the hand-drawn sketches on the menus. It may be bigger, but the small touches are what still make it very much Piccino.