Four of us went to Le Petit Italien the other night on the recommendation of one of our little group, who had a memory of a great evening there and a sublime pairing of red wine from Puglia and Parmesan cheese. She was eager to repeat the experience with us.
A look at the restaurant’s menu online made me a bit skeptical. The list of dishes was too conventional – I’d rather eat at a place that takes some chances rather than catering to expectations – but I was willing to try. If the conventional is brilliantly done with great ingredients, why not?
The place was already crowded at 8 pm, rather early for French diners. The pleasantly lively atmosphere was dimly lit by festive twinkly white lights on the ceiling and over the bar, a couple of small crystal chandeliers, and several wall lamps, with a display of small mirrors in the backroom reflecting all the sparkly lights.
Of the three different starters we ordered, the most interesting was the special of the day, an egg poached in Parmesan cream and served with grilled “late-harvest” radicchio (chicory). We were stumped by the late-harvest (tardivo) description, which I only knew of in reference to wine grapes, but I have since learned that radicchio is often picked after the first frost and then forced to regrow (read all about this complicated process here). The Parmesan cream and the radicchio were lovely, but the egg was barely cooked, which I only realized when I swallowed the raw white, something I wouldn’t have knowingly done.
The friend who wanted to repeat her earlier ecstatic experience had the arugula salad with fresh Parmesan and paired it with the same wine, Roccamora Negroamaro. She was rather disappointed by the Parmesan, which was harder and less tasty and fragrant than she remembered, but she found the hearty but smooth wine to be just as good as it was the first time.
The Livornese sauce on the calamari, made with tomatoes, capers, kalamata olives, and garlic, should have been very flavorful with those ingredients, but wasn’t. Adding some chili pepper helped, but the friend who ordered it still found the calamari to be tasteless.
He then had the leg of lamb, which was drowned in a gravy that overwhelmed the flavor of the meat, which in itself was fine. It came with a vegetable casserole.
Two of us ordered a favorite Italian dish, linguine with clam sauce. It wasn’t terrible, but I was disappointed by it. The pasta was slightly overcooked, and it was a bit dry, with very little of the winy, clammy sauce that makes the dish so good. Not only that, but the clams were not as sparkling fresh as they should be. The other friend who had it enjoyed it rather more than I did, but her pasta was a bit more al dente.
The person who was happiest with her main course had the paglia e fieno (literally, straw and hay pasta, basically a mix of colored noodles) with truffle cream, jambon cru (cured ham) and grated truffles. She especially liked the contrast of the salty ham with the creamy sauce.
We did better with the desserts. The baba al limoncello had a nice cake component and came with limoncello that was not too sweet.
My lemon meringue pie was good enough that I ate the whole thing, in spite of my best intentions (to have only a couple of bites), with a soft, shortbread-like crust, tart lemon filling and soft meringue.
Sadly, as often happens, the magic my friend experienced on her first visit to Le Petit Italien was not there for her this time. If I lived in the neighborhood, I would probably pop in from time to time, choosing my dishes carefully, but I don’t see it as a destination restaurant.Favorite