2017-06-07 / Restaurant of the Week

Piccola Venezia

You know you’ve arrived in life when you’re seated at a cozy table at the legendary “Piccola Venezia” with its charming, venerable owner and founder, Ezio Vlacich. Since 1976 Piccola Venezia has hosted locals, politicians, and celebrities alike in its classically decorated dining room, lined with travertine marble, soft lighting, and tables dressed in crisp, white linens.

“Customers come first,” says Vlacich. “I treat everyone like friends….rich, poor, politicians, famous people, everyone is a friend,” he adds. The illustrious list of “regulars” includes Tony Bennett, with his own table, Mayor Koch, who came every Friday, Mayor Giuliani, and Senator Al D’Amato. Comedian Jackie Mason still comes in regularly for the great food, service, and excellent company. We had the pleasure of an in-depth interview with Ezio Vlacich who came from humble beginnings in Istria, in the northern reaches of the Italian and Yugoslavian borders. At age 16 he became a Merchant Marine and sailed the world and shared with us his stories of adventure and good fortune. Later he worked as a waiter in restaurants in lower Manhattan, saving his pennies for his own place. With the help of his supportive and lovely wife Giuliana, and sons Robert and Chris, who work in the restaurant business, and son Gregory, Vlacich is grateful for his loyal clientele and the success of his restaurant. This is a tale of an immigrant who defines himself as a very proud American, donning an American Flag pin on his lapel.

It’s practically unnecessary to talk about the wonderful food here after all these years, but if you haven’t been to Piccola Venezia, you’re probably dying to hear about it, so you should start first with a classic cocktail from the skilled barman, or a glass of fine wine. The waitstaff, clad in classic red waistcoats and black bow ties tends to your every need and brings a plate of bruschetta, olives, and Parmigiana while you review the menu. Vlacich insisted we try the Special Piccola combination of chilled lump crab meat alongside two enormous shrimp. These plump crustaceans are fresh from the sea and tasted great with a dab of cocktail sauce or a squeeze of lemon. The grilled octopus is tender and charred to a flavorful finish, and served cut up into bite-sized chunks of goodness. Juicy mussels in tomato or white wine sauce are aromatic with lots of garlic, and crusty bread for the juices. “Yota” is a traditional Istrian soup cooked with white beans and cabbage, while the Portobello mushroom is grilled and served with polenta. A platter of Prosciutto di Parma is a must for sharing, along with spears of Parmigiano cheese.

Pastas are handmade at Piccola Venezia and the Istrian “fuzi” is a fine example of their craft. Hand rolled, al dente pasta is topped with woodsy mushrooms and a sauce made of grappa and Parmigiano cheese. Gnocchi are made with a special blend of potato flour and wheat flour that renders them light as air. When topped with rich, creamy gorgonzola sauce, it’s a wonderful combination of textures and flavors. Pappardelle ribbon pasta with whole tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil, and a touch of cream hit the spot. Next time I’ll try “bucolloni,” which are tortellini stuffed with veal and topped with osso buco sauce.

Piccola Venezia is famous for fish and seafood, just like its namesake. Enjoy a whole roasted or broiled fish such as Branzino, Dorado, trout almondine, or salmon fillet, prepared as you like. Calamari ‘fra diavolo’ with spicy sauce is piled high on a mound of spaghetti or rice if you prefer.

We shared an impressive rack of Colorado lamb, gently seasoned with garlic and rosemary, whose rosy-pink meat just fell off the bone and into our mouths. Served with grilled asparagus and multi-layered potatoes au gratin, I enjoyed the leftovers the next evening. Osso buco is a classic Northern Italian dish made with a slow-cooked veal shank served with either rice or gnocchi topped with its rich, savory gravy. A peasant dish of Pollo Campagnola is country style chicken with peppers, sausage, roasted peppers, lots of garlic and savory sauce, while the chicken breast “Ezio” is layered with prosciutto and fontina cheese. Go for the “Tagliata alla Fiorentina” which is a massive Angus steak, prepared Florentine style with olive oil and rosemary and grilled to order. This juicy steak can be shared by two so you’ll have room for dessert!

Tender crepes called ‘palacinke’ are filled with hazelnut cream and served warm. Molten chocolate Vesuvio erupts with chocolately goodness, served with vanilla gelato, while “affogato” is vanilla gelato “drowned” in a double shot of hot espresso, essentially killing two birds with one stone. We shared the delicate panna cotta topped with baby strawberries and blueberries. Ezio kindly offered us glasses of his own home-made grappa, served in chilled liqueur glasses. He even showed us a photo of his home distillery with him hard at work.

Piccola Venezia is a labor of love; love of family, love of food, love of friends and community. With over 40 years of excellence, it’s not surprising Zagat’s listed Piccola Venezia in its Top 10 list for NYC and Queens. Michelin, Frank Bruni, and this reviewer all recommend Piccola Venezia for a classic Northern Italian culinary experience with great wine, excellent service, and a lifelong history of serving the community. There’s private dining for up to 80 people and a private dining room in the wine cellar for an intimate meal. Piccola Venezia is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and there’s valet parking outside. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet Ezio and Giuliana as they welcome you or visit you at your table.

Thank you for being such a valued part of our Queens Community. Salute!

42-01 28th Avenue
Astoria  718.721.8470

www.piccola-venezia.com

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