If you took the Bellagio in Las Vegas, put it in a nano-compressor and shrunk it down to size, you would wind up with La Piccola Fontana located in El San Juan Hotel.
The restaurant has marble columns with voluted capitals at the top and glints of neon coming through a white fascia, contrasting with chandeliers capturing playful highlights over varnished mahogany tabletops. Small faux candles in the center of tables provide a touch of romance.
And while the decor may evoke an amusement theme reminiscent of the Vegas strip, everything else about La Piccola is authentic Northern Italian— through and through. From General Manager Matteo Siscatto, who comes from Tuscany, to Executive Chef Alfonso Pescarino, who is from Milan.
Even our waiter on the first visit to the restaurant, Pablo, who is from Ponce, Puerto Rico, has an Italian accent. Perhaps he is from the Tuscan side of Ponce.
His service was cordial, he was well-versed in the intricacies of the items on the menu and attentive without being overbearing.
He kicked us off with a Beef Carpaccio ($16) sliced razor thin and covered with shaved parmesan; so refreshing when combined with the rucola lettuce and lemon vinaigrette. The tart flavors lingering on the palate combine perfectly with the fresh beef, making a perfect transition for the other cheese-infused appetizer, Manchego Fritto ($14), Manchego cheese wedges breaded and fried with guava sauce. The combo scores well as another interesting play on cheese as a perfect complement.
The apps were only a prelude to the star of the evening—Pescarino's risotto, of which he makes just about every possible combination; porcini risotto, shrimp risotto and risotto a la Milanese are just a few. The chef happily accepts the challenge to prepare combinations recommended and suggested by clients.
This newspaper's reporters had the Lobster Risotto in Champagne ($35). The champagne reduction gives this dish a unique flavor in just the right proportion with olive oil, helping the lobster shine through. The lobster is cooked perfectly and the risotto is al dente, just hard and moist enough with a hint of cheese lingering on the edges of the palate. Da risotto bomb, worth every penny.
The truth is Chef Pescarino got his risotto craft down to a science a long time ago because he was weaned on the stuff in his days studying culinary arts in Milan. His secret is the arroz Arborio— don't tell anyone—which he handles with the deft expertise of a butcher wielding his blade.
Adding to the dining experience was a Rosso di Montalcino 2009, a chianti that held its own with the variety of flavors in the courses of the meal, with a long and smooth finish on the palette taking over as the final note. Perfect.
The truth is La Piccola Fontana has an impressive array of Italian wines. Some super Tuscans such as the Ornellaia Masseto 2008 and the Sassicaia 2000 are fantastic wines rarely found elsewhere, which underscores the quality of the list. It is no wonder that La Piccola Fontana has landed on the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence list for the past two years.
We closed the evening with a crème brulée and espresso that were good, but nothing could top the risotto. As true Northern Italian cuisine goes, La Piccola Fontana is a tough act to follow.