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Piccolo Forno centers on its Tuscan heart

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 11:43 p.m.

Critically acclaimed Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville may seat only 54 diners, but its cooks regularly churn out 200 to 250 dinners a night, even during the week.

With authentic Tuscan recipes inspired by owner and head chef Domenic Branduzzi's grandmother and mother, guests know that when they visit Piccolo Forno, they're getting the real deal.

They also expect a wait for a table, as word has spread about the tiny eatery where everything is made fresh daily and nothing costs more than $16.

"Wood-fired pizzas and pasta are our main focus," says Branduzzi, 27, who opened Piccolo Forno five years ago. "We make all of our pasta in house -- it's kind of our niche. A lot of what we do is working with seasonal ingredients.

"We're known for having good food that's affordable," he says. "People love that we're BYOB, too, and we're content with that."

The restaurant's atmosphere blends the old with the ultra-modern, featuring interior brick walls and a soaring ceiling with several suspended copper lights. The muted brown ceramic floor tile, white marble tabletops and wooden chairs go nicely with the burnt orange back wall. Placemats and tablecloths are nowhere to be found, as Branduzzi likes to keep things simple, but with a touch of elegance.

"We are just a small mom-and-son operation," Branduzzi says. "My mom, Carla, is the heart and soul of the operation."

His parents, Carla and Antonio Branduzzi, owned Il Piccolo Forno in the Strip District for several years until it closed two-and-a-half years ago. After Antonio Branduzzi passed away three years ago, his wife found it difficult to keep the Italian bakery open. Carla joined her son in his enterprise shortly afterward.

"I went to Tuscany with Antonio to learn to cook when we were first married," says Carla Branduzzi, 56, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her two daughters, Anna Maria and Angela, work at the restaurant, too.

"Tuscan food is very simple and basic -- everything is fresh," Carla says. "They use what's available at the time. I've been cooking professionally for 25 years

"Domenic had the nerve to take this on, and he's doing very well," she says. "He has such a calm personality, just like his father."

Domenic was born in Lucca and lived there until his family moved back to Pittsburgh when he was 4. He grew up learning how to cook from his family, and by working at his parents' bakery every weekend.

"I loved cooking. It was a way to spend time with my dad and bond with him," Domenic says. "The most important thing he taught me was a good work ethic. He had magic hands. He showed me the connection between food and relationships, and how cooking was more about the people who came in to see him and talk to him."

Domenic graduated from Duquesne University in 2004 with a degree in international business and marketing, but the restaurant, he says, "fell into my lap."

"I knew I would always do something food-related in the future, but not so soon," he says with a laugh. "I had worked here seven years ago when it was another restaurant, and knew the owners well. They offered me the opportunity to do my own thing."

The menu offers an impressive variety of wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas, with fresh vegetables and various meat toppings along with cheeses you don't normally find on pizza, such as gorgonzola, ricotta and mascarpone.

Carla Branduzzi makes all of the dozen varieties of pasta (she rolls 24 pounds of pasta a day, she says) including rigatoni, canelloni, tortelli, gnocchi, tagliatelle, fettucine and cavatelli.

They use long-braised rabbit and lamb in some of their pastas; and their signature dish is the lasagna Toscana -- a traditional layered lasagna with a meat ragu and bechamel cream sauce.

"We change the menu every six months or so, but some things have to stay on," Domenic says. "We'll never take the lasagna off."

They get their cheeses from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company in the Strip, the produce from Paragon Produce, and meats from Jo-Mar and Weiss. Domenic goes to the Strip every day, he says, because fresh means everything in Italian cooking.

"At the root, our cuisine is very healthy," he says. "We get whatever's growing, and we eat it. Our motto is 'good, good, healthy kitchen.'"

Domenic Branduzzi lives within walking distance of his restaurant and says that, while his customers come from all over, many are Lawrenceville residents.

"I love Lawrenceville -- there's a nice walking area here with shops, boutiques and cafes," he says. "It's a new, hip area in town. It's a great neighborhood. Lawrenceville has been good to me."

Risotto D'Estate (Summer Risotto)

Piccolo Forno owner and head chef Domenic Branduzzi chose his this dish to share with Cooking Class because it's easy and showcases the fresh, seasonal vegetables that are available right now. Risotto is a healthy staple in an Italian diet, he says.

"Some people are intimidated by risotto because it is a little time-consuming," he says. "But risotto is one of the simplest things to make. The key is to always start with onions, fry them well, and then fry the rice with it. You don't have to continually stir it, and you want it to be a little al dente."

This vegetarian meal would go well with a light white wine such as a chardonnay.

• Olive oil

• 1 tablespoon minced garlic

• 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper

• 1 cup diced yellow onion

• 1 1/2 cups small diced carrots

• 1 1/2 cups diced zucchini

• 1 1/2 cups chopped red pepper

• 1 tablespoon salt

• 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

• 1 pound (two cups) Arborio rice

• 10 cups warm chicken or vegetable broth

• 1 cup grated pecorino Romano

• 1 1/2 cups chopped radicchio

Place a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and crushed red pepper and saute until just barely golden. Next, add the onion and saute well until it is translucent.

Then add the carrots and stir them with the onion for about 5 minutes. Next, add the zucchini and red peppers, and season all the vegetables with salt, pepper and the fresh herbs. Continue cooking and mixing the vegetables for another 10 minutes or until par cooked.

Add the rice directly to the vegetables and mix well so the oil coats each kernel and the vegetables are well mixed. Add about 4 cups of the warm broth and mix well. Stir the contents periodically until the broth is soaked up by the rice.

Add the remaining broth 2 cups at a time and continue the process until the rice is cooked (still firm, not mushy). This could take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.

Finish by adding the grated pecorino Romano and radicchio (Photo 6) , stir in, then remove from the heat and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Additional Information:

Piccolo Forno

Cuisine: Tuscan

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Entree price range: $10-$16

Notes: BYOB, with a $5 corkage fee per bottle. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted for parties of five or more. Wheelchair accessible.

Address: 3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-622-0111 or website

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