How Nonna’s Recipes Turned Small Italian Kitchen Into Beloved New York Restaurant
Philip Guardione, owner and chef of Piccola Cucina grew up in a family that cooked a lot. Like so many Italians, especially southern Italians, Sunday was a religion for eating and cooking together. “My grandmother would come and give all the children odd jobs to help prepare the meal – part of it so she wouldn’t get into trouble,” says Guardione.
Her aunt and grandmother were arguing in the kitchen over who made the best parmigiana di melanzane or sauce. “They would fight over who would make the best sauce. Or the best lasagna, there was this rivalry every Sunday, sweet competition. And so I grew up surrounded by it. He still does not say who made the best sauce, to maintain diplomacy.
“I think it was those moments together, watching them cook, tasting what they did, being part of that experience, that inspired me to become a chef myself,” he says.
From a young age Guardione cooked professionally, his father had urged him and his brothers to go abroad to work in the best gourmet kitchens in Europe, “when I was in New York in 2007, I had already worked in Switzerland. , Paris, Milan both as a personal chef but also as a chef in major hotels and restaurants. So I came to New York with a portfolio.
Guardione was only supposed to come to New York 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 then bought out the partner and Piccola Cucina was born.
But Piccola’s original ideas weren’t the intimate version she’s now synonymous with. “When I started with the restaurant, I thought I would start with more gourmet cuisine. When in reality we saw that the customers wanted something else. So I changed our menu, taking inspiration from what I grew up eating at home. I was inspired by the food my grandmother made, ”says Guardione.
When he returns to his roots and honors the flavors of his grandmother’s cuisine, the flavors of Sicily, his business grows. “That’s when it all changed and that’s really what made us successful – from these simple traditional dishes that have a contemporary twist. Today people want a lighter version of the caponata for example.
Using humble ingredients and most importantly, 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 is no different from the little restaurants on the streets of Catania with entrees like grilled calamari with avocado and pane carasau or spaghetti with sea urchins (all pasta is homemade) menu n It’s not too complicated or too complicated – just like nonna did.
“I’m crazy about the ibicenco shrimp, it’s a little red shrimp and due to 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 town, this product lends itself to a delicate dish.
The goal has been focused on always keeping the food simple, raising the best products and arousing a sensory memory carrying the one who eats the dishes at home in Sicily.
“In New York, there are so many Italians and Italo-Americans, and when they eat some of our products, it triggers an emotion. I have had clients who get emotional while eating an arancino! Because they remember their origins, their memories.
Guardione is naturally Sicilian, he describes how his food distributors have all been the same since they started the restaurant, “Out of respect we have to focus on the products, the price doesn’t matter. Our percentage food costs are quite high, but I’d rather make less money but a great product than make more money immediately with a poor product.
“The restoration must last over time. We have to grow every year, and we can only do that 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 intends to open a sixth location, a sort of Italian street food offering.