As if to get a head start on the new year, Labib Hajjar and his partners have launched the Poco Piatti, a new and agreeably different kind of restaurant. Even if his name is less well- known than those of his other restaurants, the Beirut and Byblos, Mr. Hajjar holds a deservedly established place among local restaurateurs.
What kind of a restaurant is this new venture? Well, until someone comes up with a better word for it, you might say that it's poly-ethnic Mediterranean, for it offers a guest four ethnic categories to choose from: Mid-Eastern, Greek, Spanish, and Italian.
But what sets it apart? What's it like? Start with the name: Poco Piatti, Italian for “little plates” - not the crockery but what's served on it. If you're familiar with Spanish tapas - tasty little munchies typically served in wine bars - you will find it easier to fit the Poco Piatti's little plates into a comfortable context. But compared with tapas or not, the idea is really not that alien, and the great eating that comes from this kitchen will tide you over the hump of the unaccustomed.
Of course the menu suggests appetizers, Italian antipasti, a staggering 19 of them! Does the name suggest what may be the most common antipasto offering, sliced sausage, prosciutto, cheeses, olives black and green, hard boiled eggs, quartered tomatoes, and bites of anything else left around the kitchen? Yes, there is one, almost an ideal model of the type; the Antipasto del Poco Piatti.
There are shrimp, gamberi, sauteed with garlic and asti spumante; that's one of the 13 I haven't yet tasted (I can't imagine shrimp and asti spumante!). Seafood is a big item in an Italian diet, given the country's almost interminable coastline, and it's reflected in clams and mussels as well as shrimp, but it is not overdone. If you like clams as much as I, you may enjoy the vongole al forno oreganato, baked stuffed clams seasoned with many good flavors - oregano, as the name indicates, prominent among them.
On the paper place setting, the names of all 60 items are boldly printed in the language of the ethnic menu section, and without that reference it's hard to look for one particular recommendation or another. But all are underlined with succinct but precise descriptions. Incidentally, the servers all display good ears to be able to recognize the foreign words and phrases we customers mumble. It's been my experience that they also know what each plate is about.
If after having digested the 19 appetizer possibilities (at a bargain-basement average price of $4.60) you think yourself past the surprises, you will be mistaken. All the entrees in the four menu sectors are, with very modest exceptions, priced at almost the same level as the appetizers, far less than entrees in “a good restaurant” ought to cost.
Think back to the tapas, little baked meat and vegetable pies among which Spaniards graze at the end of a working day, to enjoy with a glass of rioja. In a word, what the Poco Piatti offers us is an opportunity to graze, to pursue a progressive dinner, under one roof. Nothing could possibly be construed as a full dinner; if you're still hungry after a couple of antipasti, an individual grilled pizza with sausage, three grilled baby lamb chops (don't tell your little ones), and a classic spinach pie in a phyllo crust, order another piatta or two - perhaps a dish of paella, said by my server to be the most filling dish on the menu, saffron rice baked with clams, mussels, shrimp, and chicken, and chorizo.
Apart from facing too much of a single good thing, no matter how good, the Poco Piatti suggests that if some dish is just to your taste, why, order up another one. Besides that, you can hone your discretion in pairing different foods and flavors with one another, comparing and contrasting, wines from an adequate list included. I've been told that most customers enjoy four little piatti, followed by a dessert - what else? - tiramisu.
You may want to have two or more plates together for comparing, but then, I find it easier to enjoy the varied outputs of a talented kitchen one by one. In either case, remember to let your server know.
Reservations are accepted, and a good idea, especially on weekend evenings. There is a spacious parking lot, shared with other shops and services, as well as a Food Town Plus and Mazel's, both marking the mini-mall with prominent curbside signs. A traffic light facilitates access and egress.
RESTAURANTS COME and go, and many are missed. Among the latter, count Our Place on Reynolds Road, which has announced that Feb. 28 will be the last day. Mac and his gifted, gracious wife, Tong, look forward to a spell of retirement.