Dining Review: Piccolo Virtù

Nikki BuchananMay 1, 2023
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Wagyu tartare with bourbon-foie brown butter at Piccolo Virtù
Wagyu tartare with bourbon-foie brown butter at Piccolo Virtù

Photography by Rob Ballard

Gio Osso’s new Old Town trattoria is a more laid-back but no less terrific alternative to the Virtù mothership.

Painted above the open kitchen of chef-owner Gio Osso’s Piccolo Virtù in Old Town Scottsdale is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous maxim: La semplicitå è l’ultima sofisticazione. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 

Clearly, Osso and chef de cuisine Marcellino Ramos wish to telegraph their intentions, but the philosophy lesson is unnecessary for any customer paying a whit of attention. Delicious examples of simplicity and sophistication are found on every plate.  

Piccolo (which means “little” in Italian) is temperamentally the middle child in Osso’s family of Virtù restaurants, landing somewhere between come-as-you-are Pizzeria Virtù and elegant, expensive Virtù Honest Craft in terms of ambition – a place where discerning foodies can dine casually without sacrificing the nerdy touches they love.

Sea urchin crudo
Sea urchin crudo

Set in the former Nonna Urban Eatery space, the restaurant is compact and cozy, exuding the convivial vibe of a classic trattoria. You could post up at the copper-topped bar for cocktails and various nibbles made with house-made focaccia; or feast on whole suckling pig with a table of friends (an indulgence that requires 48 hours’ notice). Additionally, Piccolo’s à la carte menu – featuring crudi, antipasti, pastas, individual entrées and large-format plates (consider the 55-ounce prime Niman Ranch porterhouse when you’ve got an extra $295 lying around) – offers the kind of flexibility that Virtù Honest Craft, with its three-course prix fixe menu, cannot.

Piccolo’s first and largest menu section is devoted to crudi – colorful, beautifully composed plates of raw fish dressed in oils, juices, vinaigrettes and the like, daintily garnished with microgreens and flowers. Some of the more familiar selections include rich blue fin tuna, sparked with chiles and lightened with orange zest-infused salt; albacore, set in a golden pool of lemon-olive oil marinade, then spooned with anchovy-laced salsa verde and dotted with crisp-fried capers; and tuna belly, pungent with cracked and cured green olives, topped with sweet, licorice-y fennel crunch.

Forced to pick a favorite, I might go with sea urchin, afloat in a puddle of smoked tomato broth with raw quail egg and salmon roe; or yellowtail, set atop a swirl of smoked tomato purée and strewn with crunchy garlic crumbles. Sea bass, laved in warm sesame oil and scattered with delicate, tempura-like onion, pays homage to Nobuo Fukuda, who made a similar version for many years both at Hapa and Sea Saw.

spaghetti carbonara
spaghetti carbonara
Blue fin crudo
Blue fin crudo

What a delicious throwback.

The final crudo is a green onion-smothered tartare of Wagyu beef filet, rich meat made richer with a glistening amalgamation of brown butter, foie gras and bourbon. Spread on focaccia, hash-marked from the grill, its flavors are round and lush.

Even the salads are great. Arugula, tomato and Parmesan dressed with olive oil and lemon is as deliciously straightforward as the menu’s semplice (simple) suggests. Meanwhile, radicchio’s purplish leaves serve as crisp cups for juicy orange supremes, shaves of crumbly pecorino and crunchy breadcrumbs, the bitterness of the radicchio mitigated by the orange’s sweetness and the cheese’s richness and salt. I love it.

Carbonara ’22, a soulful riff on classic carbonara, begins with egg-enriched spaghetti alla chitarra made with grano arso (burnt grain). It’s an ancient wheat product that embodies the peasant cooking of rural Italy, where not even the scorched grains left in the fields were wasted. Served in a pretty twirl, the pasta, tinted black and redolent with flavors of smoke and earth, is generously ladled with carbonara’s famously creamy sauce, composed of egg, Pecorino Romano and nubbins of salty-sweet, caramelized pancetta. Finished with garlicky breadcrumbs and a dab of uni for a microburst of ocean-y brine, this rustic bit of lusciousness simultaneously breaks and honors tradition.

We’re stuffed, but not too stuffed to appreciate a massive bone-in short rib, supple from slow braising. It’s set on a firm but creamy cushion of black garlic farrotto – farro cooked risotto-style, which offers chewy texture and nutty complexity. Castelvetrano olives, preserved lemon and fresh mint lend zest and a touch of unexpected sweetness to another rustic yet artful dish that eloquently proves da Vinci’s point.

Although it’s a tiny bit overcooked, our pan-seared halibut, set in a foamy broth perfumed with anise-flavored sambuca liqueur and fennel pollen, is an inspired combination of flavors further enhanced by mussels, mushrooms, onions and red bell peppers, bathed in a vinegary, escabeche-like marinade. Excellent.

Because there’s always room for dessert, we tackle Osso’s signature affogato (a cup of hazelnut gelato drowned in deep, dark, faintly chocolaty espresso) and an incredibly intense flourless chocolate cake sided with chocolate gelato, a double whammy made for chocoholics.

It’s been a fabulous meal, but not an inexpensive one. One could reasonably argue that the entrées are too pricy to place Piccolo squarely between the original Virtù and the pizzeria, but that’s hardly the point. Piccolo brings something to Old Town that it doesn’t have – excellent crudi and plenty of simple Italian dishes bearing Osso’s trademark sophistication. Sign me up.

halibut in sambuca and fennel pollen broth
halibut in sambuca and fennel pollen broth
Piccolo Virtù

Cuisine: Italian
Contact: 7240 E. Main St., Scottsdale, 480-663-3296, piccolovirtu.com
Hours: Tu-Sa 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Tu-Th 5-9 p.m., F-Sa 4-10 p.m.
Highlights: Uni, yellowtail, sea bass and Wagyu crudi ($23-$35); radicchio salad ($21); spaghetti carbonara ($34); short rib ($65)