Day and Night
Lunch is by far the best bargain at Glendale’s Piccolo Polentoni
By Erica Wayne 04/11/2013
About a month ago, Groupon sent me an offer I couldn’t resist — $30 for $60 worth of food at Piccolo Polentoni, a new Italian restaurant on Brand Boulevard in Glendale. I checked out the menu and, tempted by the pastas but a bit shell-shocked by the almost doubling of prices on the evening menu, decided to head over at lunchtime to stretch my Groupon to its maximum advantage.
However, before I could fix on a date, Groupon notified me that they’d forgotten to specify that the discount deal was good only for dinner. Alas, there went my hopes of getting the lobster ravioli at midday for $15.95, including soup or salad, instead of $36 a la carte after dark. Yikes!
Revamping my plans, I crossed out the margherita pizza ($7.95 at lunch/$17 at dinner), spaghetti Bolognese ($7.95/$15), cappellini checca ($5.95/$14) and even, sadly, risotto with tiger shrimp, garlic and herbs ($12.50/$20) in favor of items that only appeared on the evening menu. I figured if we enjoyed our meal, we could come back to sample the duplicated items during the “bargain” daylight hours.
When we arrived (about 7 p.m. on a Thursday), there was only one other couple dining. The interior was largely decorated in dark woods, with brown and white vertical panels on lateral walls and ceramic flooring. There was a row of banquette seating on the north wall, a series of booths on the south and a row of tables in between. Lighting was low, with Italian music as a backdrop. The kitchen was partly masked by a screen wall set up behind the furthest table.
Almost as soon as we were seated, we were presented with a basket of delicious warm foccaccia liberally infused with garlic, parsley and olive oil, with more garlic oil for dipping. We glanced at the wine list (six white, six red, with all by-the-glass prices $11/$12 and all bottles $42/$48) but decided to skip the alcohol and concentrate on food instead. We ordered calamari fritti ($14) and spinach with garlic and lemon ($11) from the appetizer list, and risotto with walnuts and gorgonzola ($19) and house-made fettuccine “alla fiorentina” ($20) with ham, mushrooms, green peas in a light cream sauce.
The calamari was a pleasant starter, a plentiful mix of lightly floured tendrils and rounds bedded in greens and sprinkled with parsley, with a good, rich marinara sauce and plenty of lemon slices. And, making things even better, the bread kept being replenished by our accommodating server, who frequently checked to make sure we were happy.
We had asked that our spinach be served at the same time as our entrees, which it was. Lemon, garlic and good olive oil dominated the dish, with the greens just wilted and still emerald green; it was a perfect complement to our rich noodle and rice dishes. The gorgonzola risotto was creamy and subtle, with small nuggets of walnut throughout and just the right amount of blue cheese.
The fettuccine was slightly less satisfying. I had visions of a saltier, smokier, fattier, more Italian ham, crisped in oil before being added to pasta, (white) mushrooms and peas. Instead, the pork was domestic, bland and chunked. The noodles were thickish and chewy. The dish was tasty enough, especially once topped with a sprinkle of parmesan, but it still could have benefited from more robust flavors.
We decided to request freshly ground pepper (the risotto could have used a twist or two as well) but were informed that the restaurant had no pepper mill, quite a shock since Piccolo Polentoni’s menu has, in addition to pasta, a number of salads (e.g., Caesar, caprese, spinach with pear and arugula) that almost demand fresh pepper. Our waiter assured us the proprietor was “working on it” and brought yet another basket of bread to soothe our sorrows.
By this time, we were getting rather full (portions at Piccolo Polentoni are generous), so we packed up the leftovers for the next evening’s dinner (we have plenty of pepper grinders at home) and prepared to end our meal with one or two of the (again, rather high-priced) advertised desserts. I was especially interested in sampling their ricotta cheesecake ($9) “with natural orange essence” while my husband longed for the coppa stracciatella ($12): chocolate chip gelato topped with cocoa powder, hazelnuts and chocolate syrup.
But that was not to be. Our slightly demoralized server confessed that the restaurant had no desserts at all. Amazing! So, we were forced to take the remnants of our dinner, leave without sweets and, once home, dig out some mint-chip ice cream from the back of the freezer to assuage our disappointment, which it did handily.
Polentoni is a somewhat derogatory term for people from northern Italy, where polenta (and risotto) is as popular as pasta. It’s the name of Piccolo Polentoni’s big sister restaurant in Culver City and, judging from the number of polenta and risotto dishes on their menu, my guess is that the owners come from the north and picked the name with tongue in cheek.
But I’m not sure the lighthearted name and pretty good fare will assure Piccolo Polentoni’s success. Their competition, even on their single block of Brand Boulevard, is fierce (e.g., Damon’s, Porto’s, Thai in LA, Carousel, Peking China, Sushi on Brand, Pho Hut and Panera). And, even limiting the choice to upscale Italian restaurants, Glendale is no slouch. (Gennaro’s, Far Niente and Fresco come to mind.) But with desserts and peppermill on site and a tweaking down of evening prices for both food and libations, Piccolo Polentoni can probably hold its own.
Meanwhile, go for lunch. Even without Groupon, it’s a real deal.