Few places in the world have food as eclectic as that of Sicily. Only 87 miles from the coast of North Africa, and central to global trade routes that brought new foodstuffs and spices over the millennia, it was ruled successively by Greece, Rome, Germanic tribes, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, France, Spain, and finally, Italy, which didn’t take possession of the island until 1860. The food of Sicily reflects all these influences to one extent or another.
Sicilian contributions have long been a cornerstone of Italian American food, but we have lately had an influx of restaurants that take a more modern approach, including Piccola Cucina Estiatorio. Located near the corner of Spring and Thompson streets in Soho, the name implies that the menu concentrates on the Greek influences that pervade Sicilian food (“estiatorio” is type of Greek restaurant fancier than a rustic “taverna”). And indeed, seafood is the primary focus of this very good establishment that seems to have largely escaped the notice of food publications and restaurant critics since it opened in 2017.
The restaurant is part of a chain whose owner and chef is Philip Guardione. He was born near the city of Catania, on the southeast coast of Sicily in the shadow of Mount Etna. He now owns and runs three similarly named, Sicilian-themed restaurants in Manhattan, one in Ibiza, and another in Red Lodge, Montana. Piccola Cucina means “little kitchen,” and not only is the kitchen diminutive, so is the dining room, with closely spaced tables, which fill up every evening starting around 6 p.m. So go earlier if you hope to snag a walk-in table.
The place is decorated with nautical ropes that hang from the ceiling and also bind a selection of wine bottles to the walls — a pricey pan-Italian list with disappointingly few bottles from Sicily. A handful of spectacular starters beckon. Keeping with its theme of Greek and Sicilian cooking, a plate of five grilled sardines ($20.50) is presented, a generous number for the price, dotted with kalamata olives and the merest sprinkling of dried herbs.
Fried calamari, esteemed as bar food internationally, is Sicily’s most famous culinary contribution. Here, it is part of a magnificent all-seafood fritto misto, which includes fish, shellfish, shrimp — and there’s even a battered and fried sardine that seems to be launching itself from the top of the pile. Though note that the creature is harder to eat in its breaded form. (Sardine lovers should order the fish grilled.)
Name-checking the chef’s home town, arancino Catanese ($15.95) is a trio of small fried rice balls. A meaty ragu pours out when you cut into them, and two sauces — one white and dairy, the other green and herbal — serve to ramp up the flavor. What these rice balls lack in size, they almost make up for in taste — though if you’re accustomed to the gargantuan rice balls that roll out of Sicilian pizzerias, these may be a bit of a disappointment.
An entire section of the menu offers raw seafood, which has apparently become popular in modern Sicily. Trio di carpaccio ($23.95) carefully aligns planks of what might be Japanese sashimi on top of another fish to create a visual spectacle. The fish is particularly delicious when gobbled alternately with slices of mandarin orange that visually enliven the iced presentation.
The balance of the menu is mainly pastas, of which two I particularly recommend. Showcasing the primacy of eggplant among Sicilian vegetables (a preference that may have been brought from North Africa and the Middle East), maccheroni Norma features hand-rolled and tapered ropes of pasta in a tomato sauce with ricotta and the cubed purple, pear-shaped vegetable. Note that another worthy dish, a largely unbreaded eggplant parmigiana, appears among the appetizers, though it could serve equally well as an entree. Another must-order pasta consists of the short, grooved, and tubular paccheri ($24.95) tossed with an abundant octopus ragu. The eight-armed cephalopod imparts a mildly gluey and rubbery texture to the sauce that, quite literally, holds the whole dish together.
There are a couple of skippable dishes, however, including a Greek salad that arrived nearly undressed, with so much feta it eclipsed the other ingredients. Sadly, the cannoli had shells so thick that they might have cracked a tooth, and tasted like they’d been filled long before — which breaks the primary rule of cannoli that they simply must be filled to order.
The wine list is jammed with bottles in the over $100 range, suggesting Piccola Cucina Estiatorio is at least partly aimed at big spenders, which may have something to do with the expectations created by the Ibiza branch of the restaurant and the international resort vibe it hopes to emulate. Nevertheless, individual glasses of wine are more mercifully priced, including an Etna Bianco Mofete ($16) made from the carricante and catarratto white grapes grown in volcanic soil. Flinty and refreshing, it goes with nearly everything on the menu— especially those grilled sardines and that octopus ragu.