How Nonna’s Recipes Turned A Little Italian Kitchen Into A Beloved NYC Restaurant
Philip Guardione, Owner and Head Chef of Piccola Cucina grew up in a family that cooked, a lot. Like so many Italians, especially southern Italians, Sundays were religion to eat and cook together. “My grandmother would come and give all the children little jobs to help prepare the meal – in part to not get in trouble,” says Guardione.
His Aunt and Grandmother would squabble going back and forth in the kitchen over who made the best parmigiana di melanzane or sauce. “They would fight over who would make the better sauce. Or the best lasagna, there was this rivalry every Sunday, a sweet competition. And so I grew up surrounded by this.” He still doesn’t say who made the best sauce, to maintain diplomacy.
“I think it was those times together, watching them cook, tasting what they made, being part of that experience, that inspired me to become a chef myself,” he says.
At an early age, Guardione, was cooking professionally, his father had pushed him and his brothers to go abroad working in the top gourmet kitchens across Europe, “by the time I was in New York City in 2007, I had already worked in Switzerland, Paris, Milano both as a personal chef but also as the head chef in large hotels and restaurants. So I arrived in New York with a portfolio.”
Guardione was only supposed to come to New York City for a visit, “but the energy and vitality of the people bewitched me.” He stayed and a rare opportunity presented itself to open a restaurant with a partnership in New York, he later bought out the partner, and Piccola Cucina was born.
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But the initial ideations of Piccola were not the homey version it is now synonymous for. “When I first began with the restaurant, I thought to start with more gourmet cuisine. While in reality, we were seeing clients wanted something else. So I changed our menu, taking inspiration from what I grew up eating at home. I was inspired by the food that my grandmother would make,” says Guardione.
When he went back to his roots and honored the flavors of his grandmother’s kitchen, the flavors of Sicily, his business grew. “That was when everything changed and that is really what brought our success – from these traditional simple dishes that have a contemporary touch. Today people want a lighter version of caponata for instance.”
Using humble ingredients and most importantly, the ingredients native to Sicily, like sardines, squid ink, swordfish, plum tomato allow the flavor of the dishes to sing. The menu is purely Sicilian, and no different than the little restaurants in the streets of Catania with appetizers like grilled calamari with avocado and pane carasau or spaghetti with sea urchins ( all the pasta is made in house) the menu isn’t fussy or overly complicated – just like nonna used to make.
“I’m crazy about the ibicenco shrimp, it’s a small red shrimp and because of our location in Ibiza we were able to connect our distributor there with our distributor here in New York and we were among the first if not the first restaurant to have this product in the city.” this product lends for a delicate dish.
The aim became focused on always keeping the food simple, elevating the best products, and sparking a sensory memory transporting who eats the dishes home, to Sicily.
“In New York, there are so many Italians and Italian-Americans, and when they eat some of our products, it triggers an emotion. I have had clients who get emotional when eating an arancino! Because they remember their origins, memories.”
Guardione is innately Sicilian, he describes how his food distributors are all the same since when they started the restaurant, “Out of respect we have to concentrate on the products, the price doesn’t matter. Our food percentage costs are quite high but I rather make less money but a great product rather than make more money immediately with a mediocre product.”
“Restoration must last over time. We have to grow annually, and we can only do this with great products. We import most of our products.”
Piccola Cucina has 5 active locations, 3 in Manhattan, 1 in Ibiza, and a pop-up in Montana. Guardione says he has plans to open a sixth location, a sort of Italian street food offer.