Astoria resident Tom Vicari has spent decades opening restaurants in up-and-coming neighborhoods across Manhattan but has decided to return to his hometown for his latest project.
Vicari, 62, began his career in the restaurant industry by working at Riccardo’s Restaurant — now called Riccardo’s By The Bridge in Astoria — when he was 15 years old. Later, he found a job as a waiter at Tavern on the Green and was promoted to manager.
Vicari became fascinated with the restaurant scene and got jobs at major French restaurants, where he learned everything about what it takes to run a successful business.
“I started working for the top French restaurants in the city where you had to know everything: the kitchen, how to carve a duck, filet of sole, the service, and you had to be impeccable,” Vicari said. “That’s where I had my good training.”
In his late 20s, he decided to open his own restaurant in Chelsea, a neighborhood that still had a reputation for being unsafe.
“They said, ‘Why Chelsea? There’s drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, the meat market. There’s nothing down there,’” he added.
He opened an expensive French restaurant, where he “made a fortune,” and decided to open an Italian restaurant and Cuban restaurant called Cuba Libre in the same area in rapid succession. The neighborhood began to change, attracting more diners to Vicari’s restaurants. At one point, he owned six restaurants within two blocks of each other.
The restaurateur repeated this formula in Gramercy, Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side. He has fond memories of those days when actors like John Leguizamo and Rubén Blades, also a singer, would visit his haunts. His Cuban sandwich was also named the best in New York by The New York Times and New York Magazine.
Rent started to get expensive, and Vicari decided to retire. He sold his restaurants and stepped away, but not for long.
“I sold a lot of my restaurants,” he said. “[I thought], let me retire. I don’t need this headache. But then I got bored.”
He passed by an empty space at 30-86 51st St. at the border of Astoria and Woodside and discovered that the rent was extremely cheap. So on June 29, Italian restaurant Piccolino was officially opened.
Piccolino offers classic Italian dishes by Chef Alfonso, who has worked for Vicari since he was 18 years old. Linguine di mare, a pasta dish that includes shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams and mussels in a light marinara sauce; veal tre amici, a meat dish that includes eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella in a sherry wine sauce; and chicken Piccolino, which features pieces of boneless chicken with sausage, a generous portion of mushrooms, olives and garlic in a white wine sauce are just some of the offerings.
Vicari said he decided to keep the menu simple but is also adding a prix-fixe brunch menu in the coming weeks that Queens residents are sure to enjoy. With options like grilled Norwegian salmon, farmer’s omelet and vanilla French toast, there will be something for everyone.
Additionally, the restaurant’s bar has extensive wine and liquor options.
Vicari takes the design of his restaurants very seriously. Piccolino is decked out in photos and paintings Vicari has collected over the years, and two paintings depicting ingredients found in Italian kitchens were hand-painted by a friend who has provided many of his restaurants with art. He even has artwork made by Astoria native and musician Tony Bennett.
“I collect a lot of stuff,” he said. “I could decorate at least four Cuban restaurants.”
The reception from customers has been good so far, and Vicari hopes to entice more diners to frequent the restaurant since food options in the area are scarce. Situated near the Boulevard Gardens apartment complex, which includes 960 units, the only eateries nearby consist of mostly delis and a bagel shop.
“Just like Chelsea, just like Hell’s Kitchen, this is gonna be the spot,” he said. “I’m gonna put this place on the map.”
Piccolino is open from Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dishes are available to order from Uber Eats, Grub Hub and Seamless. Visit piccolino.nyc for more information.