I would travel to the ends of the earth for high-quality cheap food. Today, I'm just heading next door.
Last week, I clued you into The Clever Cup, a newish coffee shop that is already drawing crowds of locals who have hankered for an independent coffee fix in Gulf Gate. Walking out after completing my "research," I paused outside Piccolo Italian Market & Deli, located right next door, on Gateway Avenue. I'd been to Piccolo many years back, when it was located in a smaller space nearby, and loved it. Staring into the shop's window, small puddles of drool began forming at the corners of my mouth, my knees began to buckle and visions of Italian subs danced in front of my eyeballs. I felt a sudden, burning craving for paper-thin prosciutto, crunchy fresh-baked bread, shredded lettuce glistening with grassy olive oil and sharp vinegar. I pledged to return as soon as I could.
So here I am. It's just after noon, and Piccolo is buzzing. A small line has formed near the counter on the left side of the main room, right in front of a wide menu. To the right, a tantalizing array of black and green olives sit in baskets behind glass, around the corner from where giant rolls and sacks of provolone chill out. Further to the right, stacks of tall shelves hold an array of tantalizing goodies. Stappj bitters? Rose water? Preserved conch? Everything growing boys and girls need.
But what really draws the crowds are Piccolo's humongous salads and sandwiches. I can't pass up the "godfather" sub ($9.50-$11.50) and its seemingly endless list of ingredients: prosciutto, capicollo, salami, sopressata, mozzarella, lettuce, tomatoes, oil, vinegar and a big dose of spicy giardiniera. I'm dining today with noted journalist and friend, Robert, who strangely prefers dishes that are not overburdened with cured pork products. Weird, right? He opts for a salad topped with grilled chicken ($7.95).
Gadzooks. My sub looks even more incredible than I remembered. And it's immense. I ordered the "regular" godfather, already as big as my keyboard. The large must be roughly the size of a cement mixer. Inside the crunchy bread rests a tumble of meats and toppings. I mash it all together as much as possible and take a bite. The first flavor that hits is the spice of the giardiniera. I'm always complaining about how bland Sarasota food can be, but Piccolo does heat correctly. It promises a hot topping and it delivers. I also enjoy the crunchiness of Piccolo's giardiniera. Unlike other varieties, which are meant more for spreading, Piccolo's is cut into larger bites and left slightly raw. It's great.
Beneath the spice, I taste the salt and fat of the cured meats, plus lactic notes from the cheese. Soft yet crunchy bread brings it home. It's delicious, but I still can't finish even the "regular" sandwich. I can't even imagine polishing off a large.
Robert's salad is also a monster, a paper plate piled high with greens, wedges of chicken and shaves of cheese. Most places just dump some cold precooked chicken on their salads—not Piccolo. The meat is warm and moist and mixes nicely with everything around it.
For dessert: a sfogliatella ($3.75), one of the many pastries eyeing me in the case next to the register. It looks strangely like a clam shell, a puffy rounded triangle with striations running across it. Layers and layers of dough surround a center of creamy ricotta. It's not too sweet, almost not sweet enough, but the balance of crispy dough and smooth filling is A-OK.
I'm happy that The Clever Cup reintroduced me to Piccolo, and I'm similarly happy to have calmed my raging Italian sub fixation. For now.
Piccolo Italian Market & Deli is located at 6518 Gateway Ave., Sarasota. It is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For more info, call 923-2202 or visit piccolomarket.com.