Mafaldine with cod roe at Piccoletto
Mafaldine with cod roe at Piccoletto Credit: Nevin Martell

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Good Taste is a new bimonthly column offering opinionated looks at the best new places to eat in the D.C. area.

The Block food hall in downtown D.C. is no stranger to mashups. Rose Ave Bakery adds Asian flavors to French pastries, while Pogiboy jubilantly marries inspiration from Filipino fast-food joint Jollibee and McDonald’s. As of late January, a new blend is happening at Piccoletto, where Italian classics come graced with Japanese elements. Meaning ‘little guy’ in Italian, it’s the latest venture from Paolo Dungca, who helms Pogiboy in the stall next door with James Beard Award winner Tom Cunanan, formerly of Bad Saint.

Japanese Italian is a growing fusion category, thriving at Kimika in New York and Sanjusan in Minneapolis. Here in D.C., Tonari unites the two culinary traditions, as did Erik Bruner-Yang’s now-closed ABC Pony, where Dungca was one of the opening chefs. “Ever since then, I wanted to dig deeper into the crossing of Asian and Italian cuisines,” he says.

The Italian side of the operation hearkens back to Dungca’s first job in the industry at Golden Vine Winery, an Italian restaurant in Disney California Adventure Park at Disneyland. There, he started washing dishes and worked his way up to a line cook position. The menu leaned into red checkered tablecloth classics: lasagna, meatballs, shrimp scampi. “It was like Olive Garden, but a little more elevated,” he says.

Dungca’s appreciation for the cuisine blossomed while working under Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve, where he first learned to make pasta. The meditative kneading, rolling, cutting, and shaping became his therapy in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.

At Piccoletto, pasta is made fresh daily with an extruder using the classic recipe of semolina flour and water (premade rice noodles are available as a gluten-free substitute). That’s where Italian tradition ends.

Tagliatelle comes topped with a slightly sweet peanut butter sauce and chili crisp, making it taste adjacent to Chinese dan dan noodles. Oyster and beech mushrooms form a dashi, in which a tangle of pappardelle is tossed along with soy-rich shoyu butter. Rather than relying on the usual parmesan as a finisher, Dungca grates on cured duck egg on top for a hit of salty umami.

Peanut butter tagliatelle at Piccoletto Credit: Nevin Martell

Under a speckled topping of sesame seeds and nori, creamy cod roe sauce clings to ruffled ribbons of mafaldine. For me, the intense richness was too much, like fettuccine alfredo on steroids.

Perhaps the most straightforward Italian flavors come in the panko crusted chicken parmesan—thoughtfully sliced, so it’s chopstick friendly—awash in porky bolognese, and spicy pork rigatoni finished with grana padano.

When it comes to starters at an Italian restaurant, fried calamari is a mainstay (some might say a requirement). Here, they don’t come with a slice of fresh lemon to squeeze on or warm marinara for dunking. Dungca treats the squid like Taiwanese fried chicken, seasoning the toothsome rounds with Chinese five spice and tossing them with fried basil. On the side is a ranch dressing amped up with nori and shio koji, an umami-packed fermented rice marinade.  

Formidable meatballs, forged from pork and Chinese sausage, sit in a pool of bolognese featuring the same sausage. They arrive with a pair of youtiao, Chinese fried dough batons. Dressed with garlic butter and thyme, the puffy golden rods come off like doughnutty breadsticks, perfect for dipping into the thick sauce. “It’s a fun way to integrate an Asian aspect into the dish,” Dungca says.

At first, some of the dishes confused me as my brain told me to expect one thing and then I tasted something completely different. However, by the end of a meal, my tastebuds were electrified by the surprisingly complementary traditions at play. Kudos to Dungca for figuring out clever ways to bring them together in ways that make the best elements of both resonate so strongly.  

Stop by the stall on Fridays and Saturdays to try even more dishes running as limited specials, as Dungca plays around with new ideas. On weekend nights, he is simultaneously hosting pop-up dinners for Hiraya, his forward-thinking Filipino restaurant he hopes to open as a brick and mortar. As if that wasn’t enough, he and Cunanan are aiming to open more locations of Pogiboy.

Meatballs with garlic fried dough at Piccoletto Credit: Nevin Martell

Piccoletto, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, (202) 681-7516, piccolettodc.com

Got a tip on a new restaurant opening? Email goodtaste@washingtoncitypaper.com. Follow Nevin on Instagram @nevinmartell and on Twitter @nevinmartell.