Thursday, 2 May 2013

Al Fresco Dining & Table Talk with Leading Chef at Piccolino's Birmingham

DJ entertaining the guests at the Al Fresco Terrace Launch


Al fresco dining is often only really feasible in warmer climes and apart from a few sun speckled days in summer, England doesn't lend itself well to such experiences.

Exterior of Piccolino's Al Fresco Terrace

But Piccolino's has a wonderful solution to this issue.  Taking into account the unpredictability of British weather, it has officially launched its covered and heated al fresco dining terrace at their Birmingham Restaurant. 

Following on from the success of their al fresco offerings at their other nationwide restaurants, Piccolino Birmingham has utilised its outdoor space and has created a continental style, pedestrian level, al fresco terrace. Partitioned by glass panels, the stylish outdoor lounge with tables and
cocktail bar echoes those that you would
find in European outdoor dining establishments. 
Acknowledging the potential inclement
weather, creature comforts such as
warm blankets and heaters are on standby to
make dining comfortable yet chic.

Executive Operational Chef James Gingell and I

I was kindly invited to the terrace's recent launch which included the opportunity and pleasure of being able to interview Piccolino's Executive Operational Chef, James Gingell, who spoke about the new terrace area, catering for vegetarians and about his love for all things Italian.


Q:  Congratulations on the opening of the new al-fresco dining terrace at Piccolinos! The al-fresco element definitely adds a continental feel to dining and complements Piccolino's Italian offering. How do you feel this benefits the overall dining experience as well as benefitting Piccolino's itself?
A:   I think it gives a real touch of Italy as everyone in Italy likes dining out and they have better weather than we do. It's good in the respect that we can eat outside with the winterised terrace.  I've had a few customer comments saying that even in the middle of winter, it feels like they are sat in the Med.  It's a real nice touch and I think that customers  really like it.

Q:  How long have you been a chef for and how long have you been at Piccolino's?
A:  I've been a chef for 26-27 years and I've been at Piccolino's since the start when the first Piccolino Restaurant opened in Knutsford and I've seen it grow to the size it is now which is 21 restaurants.

Q:   Do you enjoy vegetarian cooking yourself?
A:  I do actually, because it is more of a challenge than the mainstream meat and fish meals. To make a dish like our 'Penne a la Norma' that customers enjoy is great and to be honest it's not just vegetarians that eat it.

Q:  Where do you get inspiration from?
A:  I watch a lot of Italian TV cookery programmes and I have my own house in Italy in the region of Albus.  So I do often go back to Italy and meet up with artisan suppliers, look at new products and take some of the other chefs out there to give them a taste of real Italy. A lot of Italian food in England has been anglicised and when you go to Italy you'll see a lot of what is presented on a plate is in fact very, very rustic.  What you tend to do is take an idea and bring it back to England and just put a commercial element to it because the English diner is different to the Italian diner and they have to be gently introduced to new ideas.

Q:  Piccolino's have just launched their new menu with great reviews. Could you talk through some of the highlights including the vegetarian options?
A:  We've just recently changed menu, including the pizza section and we've looked at a few elements on there included some vegetarian dishes.  We've also just introduced a few new salads and we've got a salad on there at the moment which includes artichokes, asparagus and goats cheese.   Salads are working very well and as soon as the weather hots up salads will be requested even more so.

Q:  How do you decide upon which vegetarian dishes to make/feature on the menu?
A:  Well it has to do with seasons, we change the menu every autumn, winter, spring and summer and so we look at what is available through our suppliers, what we can get within each 3 month period, for instance artichokes are very in season now, and that dictates what we put on the menu but we always bear vegetarians in mind.  

We've always looked at vegetarian options in different ways and we try a lot of new dishes on the menu. One of our successes at the moment is our 'Pasta a la Norma' which is a Sicilian dish with a spicy aubergine base, it works very, very well and we use all shapes of pasta. It is currently on the menu with spaghetti or you can serve it with penne. What we do is we finish it with a ricotta salata, using a salted ricotta and it is a success within our vegetarian menu at the moment.   

Q:  How/where are the ingredients sourced?
A:  We work very closely with our suppliers and if we're looking for certain ingredients we ask them to source them for us.  Our vegetable supplier is someone who has a large range of goods, we tell him what we want and he goes and gets the best product for us.  We do look at organics, including items like flour, and use them occasionally.

Q:  How long does it take to test and perfect dishes at the restaurant before they are included on the menu?
A:  What we do is develop all our dishes centrally, they are tasted by the management and then what we do is trial them at one of our restaturants for anything up to 3 weeks to a month.  We then we get customer feedback, see if it is liked and then what we do is bring all the chefs in for training on the dish, talk them through the components and then roll it out to all the restaurants.  Sometimes during testing if we realise that a dish hasn't been successful, we then have a re-think and start again.

Q:  How flexible can you be for vegetarian customers that may come in with different queries or requests?
A:   I like to look at the Italian menu as a large bag of ingredients that we tend to juggle. Sometimes we will bespoke a dish if a customer comes in and asks for a little of this and a little of that that isn't on the menu and we can accommodate that request.  This day and age you need to be more accommodating to the guest and we have a policy never to say no to a customer's request, if a customer wants something they get it.

Q:  People are always looking for easy ways to cater for a mixed dinner party (ie: with meat & vegetarian guests). If you had free rein, what you make?
A:  I get a lot of joy from making fresh pasta and I like making ravioli so that is what I would do.  For instance recently I've been looking at some new flavours for summer including asparagus/pecorino and spinach/ricotta, which is a little more mainsteam.  We're going to put those two up on the menu, assess their popularity and see which one will win.

Q:  What are your predictations for future ideas/trends for vegetarian food and could we see them on a future menu listing at Piccolino's?
A:   I think provenance is a big thing at the moment, it has been for a while, and it is kind of easy now and will always be there.  It's all about using good simple ingredients and using them well rather than over garnishing or overspicing them and that is what you will find with a lot of anglicised Italian restaurants.  We tend to use a classic idea and put our own interpretation around it.  

One ingredient that I've recently experienced which is up and coming is burrata.  Burrata, which is like a buffalo mozzarella, comes from the Puglia region of Italy and how it's made is by pulling it together, as you would with a moneybag.  The curds are a lot more softer inside than in a buffalo mozzarella.  Burrata has worked very well in London but coming up towards the Midlands and the North it's still a hard sell.  

Next trend in Italian food I believe will be a focus on pizza.  Pizzas are massive in London at the moment, so many outlets are opening up.   I think we will look at pizzas in more depth and we'll be looking at more pizza flavours.  If you go more gourmet, you can marry up a lot of ingredients and flavours onto a pizza.  I think we could innovate that area more.    Classics like Margheritas will always be popular but people are now asking more of their pizzas.  

With regard to future menu listings at Piccolino's, there will always be core favourites on the menu which will remain when we do our menu changes but we always look to change 10-15 dishes outside of that.  Although the core is hard to change, when we've taken core dishes off the menu in the past, it can upset our customer base as some of our dishes have a strong following so we keep them on.   In addition, a key trend is that people are lot more aware of seasonal produce these days and want to see that reflected in their dining experiences and ultimately on our menu.


I also had the pleasure of sampling the vegetarian offerings at Piccolino from the new menu which gave me the chance to get a feel for their acclaimed Italian cuisine with a seasonal focus.


Dining with my husband, he took advantage of the current asparagus season and chose the Asparagi dish to start with, which were asparagus spears and a poached egg with a herb breadcrumb.  The seasoned asparagus were cooked to perfection whilst still possessing a delicious crunch and the egg was soft and tender.


I had the Caprino, which was a goats cheese, artichoke, mint and asparagus salad. Topped with mixed salad leaves and a gentle dressing, the crunchiness of the seasonal asparagus provided a well matched contrast to the softness of the goats cheese.

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage & Hazelnuts

For our mains, my husband had Sea Bass which as a non-vegetarian he wanted to try and exclaimed how delicious it was.  I however, opted for the menu's Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage & Hazelnuts for my main course.  

Potatoes with Garlic & Rosemary and Buttered Spinach


In addition, we ordered a portion of Patate all’aglio (potatoes with garlic & rosemary) and Spinaci (buttered spinach) to share as side accompaniments.  The butternut squash was totally delicious and had a certain sweetness to it which when wrapped in home-made ravioli pasta parcels made for a very filling dish, heightened when dipped in the sage infused oil/butter dressing that it came with.

Warm Chocolate Fondant & Salted Caramel Ice Cream

For our dolci (desserts) we opted for 
Tortino al Cioccolato (warm chocolate fondant, salted caramel ice cream) and Torta al Cioccolato (chocolate, bitter orange, almond tart, vanilla ice cream).   The Tortino's warm molten chocolate when released from its cake casing possessed a dense cocoa inspired richness which when mixed with the flavour du jour of salted caramel ice cream made for an ideal dessert, which was endorsed by our waiter. 

Chocolate & Bitter Orange Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream

The Torta's classic combination of chocolate and bitter orange with a hint of almond was an ambrosial dessert with a cornucopia of flavours balanced totally by the home-made vanilla ice cream.

Cherry Blossomed Oozells Square

Based in the cherry blossomed (as is in springtime) Oozells Square within Brindleyplace in Birmingham (next to the Ikon Gallery), Piccolino's is centrally located within the city but yet benefits from the gentle ambience of this renown dining/entertainment quarter but still possesses a positivity from the city's vibrant energy.

Not only is Piccolino's one of Birmingham's premium dining destinations, it also brings a flavour of rustic Italy to the city which can be enjoyed indoors or al fresco with warmth guaranteed for either.  The terrace is perfect for the height of summer through to the depths of winter -  for dinner with friends or for a romantic tête-à-tête.  

All in all, a great new dining concept for Birmingham's culinary scene and I am looking forward to returning with a table reservation for the terrace so I can experience the inside, out.


For information about Piccolino's Birmingham and the other restaurants in the group, visitPiccolino Birmingham
Individual Restaurants Group

Disclosure: This post was written following a kind invitation from Piccolino's Birmingham to the launch of their al fresco terrace and to experience their new menu. 
I extend my thanks to James Gingell, Piccolino's and SX Media.
This review was conducted with honesty, without bias and I was not required to produce a positive review.  For further details of my PR policy, please see the Press, PR & Food Writing page of this website.

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