Cultivating Comfort

Chef Dan Butler steers Trolley Square’s Piccolina Toscana toward small-plate, sharing-style dining. Now, please pass the burrata.

The braised lamb shank is served atop Gorgonzola risotto. Photograph by Thom ThompsonPiccolina Toscana
1412 N. Dupont St.
Wilmington, 654-8001

Prices small plates:
$5-$8, pastas: $8-$24, entrées: $13-$32

Recommended Dishes:
Burrata, carciofini dorati, ravioli alla brasata, braised lamb shank

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Snow fell lightly outside the windows behind where Dan Butler stood. Wearing a green Mister Rogers sweater, he stretched his arms onto the shoulders of a few regular customers seated for dinner. Holiday wreaths, aglow with lights, lined the glass, and trays of glistening slow-roasted pork belly and steaming, aromatic fettuccine Bolognese zipped by on the arms of waiters. If someone had snapped a picture, the moment could’ve been the 2010 Toscana Christmas Card.

“It feels like a braised lamb shank kind of night,” the diner next to me piped.

It did indeed. And if the warm, soothing vibes inside Piccolina Toscana that night steered customers toward something slow-cooked and rustic, I’d wager Dan Butler would consider that night a success. Cultivating comfort has always been the name of Butler’s game.

The newly redesigned dining room awaits the dinner crowd. Photograph by Thom ThompsonToscana, a 20-year-old Trolley Square anchor, rebooted in October with new floors, ceilings, house-cured meats and a new ’tude—smaller, simpler, more intimate. A new menu features a dozen or so small plates (“Italian tapas”), and just about every entrée or pasta dish can be ordered half-size. The new decor is more stark, certainly, and neater than before. A bank of cushy green booths line one wall. Ornate, circular light fixtures dangle above. The opposing wall features canvases swathed in browns, grays and rifle greens, a signal of Piccolina’s minimalist ethic. The idea, I reckon, is to create an air of openness.

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“There are no more exclusive restaurants,” Butler says. “We don’t want people to feel like they have to eat soup-salad-entrée-dessert. The form I think restaurants will move toward is appealing to as many people as possible.”

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Pastry chef Jayne Pawlikowski rolls out pumpkin dough for doughnuts. Photograph by Thom ThompsonHere’s the trick: Toscana’s redesign not only modernizes the restaurant, but places it squarely in Butler’s wheelhouse. An open-ended style of dining encourages much passing and sharing of food, a step toward the family-style dining Butler’s always envisioned. He also parked a massive new community table in front of the coolest of the restaurant’s new features, an open-view pastry station. Its only wall is a blackboard covered in script-written dessert recipes. Even artisanal pizzas, a Toscana cornerstone, are experiencing a huge revival.

After 20 years of building a loyal following, Butler was shrewd not to shake things up too drastically. His beloved pizzas and tortellini in sun-dried tomato cream sauce will likely be menu staples through the next dozen Toscana incarnations, and his dreams of Sunday suppers and affordable wine bottles are long-lasting charms.

The tapas are thus the biggest amendment to Toscana’s menu, and executive chef Robbie Jester’s kitchen packed most of them with enough flavor and personality to exceed their size. Piercing open Toscana’s burrata—a handspun mozzarella pouch filled with thickened cream—ignites the same visceral buzz one gets from cracking into crème brûlée. The oozing cream bled into a buttery, salty, beautiful puddle—a sauce, essentially, for shreds of roasted red pepper and the more fortified mozzarella.

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If viscosity doesn’t get your motor running, there are other small plates to explore. Most new additions verged on the austere, though a few showed touches of finesse. (I’ll turn a blind eye for the moment to the short rib terrine with pickled pear.)

Most rustic was carciofini dorati, a humble Mediterranean sauté of artichokes, cipollini and mushrooms awash with sage, white wine and aged Pecorino. Humble though it may have been, the bubbling dish stood tall. I couldn’t say the same for butter-poached shrimp, which, though well-cooked, seemed camouflaged by tepid cannellini beans and cucumber bits.

Better ideas abound in Jester’s grilled octopus salad. A pop of garlic awakened a room temperature tangle of arugula and chunks of grilled octopus dressed in citrus. The fish itself was nicely tender, no easy task considering its potential to become chewy when cooked too much.

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 The pumpkin doughnuts are filled with cinnamon mousse and served with a caramel-butterscotch sauce.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonThe unquestioned MVP of the winter pasta menu was ravioli alla brasata, drum-tight bundles filled with milled beef short rib. The filling was a neat touch—husky and rich—but it was a sweet varnish of mushroom demiglace that did the lifting by deepening and amplifying the beef’s woodsy notes. A plate of mezzaluna pasta stuffed with butternut squash wasn’t far behind, and it could have been even better had it not shared its DNA with pumpkin pie. Dustings of nutmeg and cinnamon soaked into a buttery sauce flecked with pine nuts, giving acorn squash-stuffed agnoloti a dessert-like note. Whether that was Jester’s intention, it was nonetheless delicious.

With so many small dishes and half-portions flying around, it was good to see Jester’s crew didn’t lose focus on larger plates. One, a juicy roasted pork loin, dripped with herby shimmer and hints of garlic from a perfect stuffing.

And on the snowy night, a glistening lamb shank indeed made its way to the table, hulking over a Gorgonzola risotto and a tiny pool of braising jus. Meltingly soft, rich threads of lamb tore apart like busted seams, gaining salty enrichment from the risotto.

Service was generally terrific—and amped, it would seem, from all the newness.

Taking center stage in the new pastry station was pastry chef Jayne Pawlikowski, who worked under Butler at Deep Blue before taking off to earn a culinary degree. She inherited an important job, considering she and her work are being showcased to encourage customers to order desserts. I imagine her gelati will do brisk business in warmer months, though I loved both I tried in mid-December—chocolate chunk-studded mocha, and a cinnamony oatmeal cookie flavor.

Jaws dropped when beholding her towering chocolate mousse, which was stacked atop a moist round of chocolate cake and flanked by a dollop of white chocolate cream. Yet nothing intoxicated quite like her pumpkin doughnuts. Nary an inch of plate was wasted, with rich caramel-butterscotch sauce on the side and doughnut holes crammed with cinnamon mousse. The doughnuts, all moist and cakey, with a crisp outside bite, hardly needed the help.

The meal ended as it began: with warm, comforting food done with precision and thought. Suddenly it felt like a doughnut night.

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