Food

Centrolina Chef Amy Brandwein Opens a Wood-Fired Italian Cafe With All-Day Breakfast

Piccolina is DC's newest cheffy fast-casual.
Centrolina chef Amy Brandwein opens Piccolina, an all-day cafe in City Center. (pictured: spinach lasagna from the wood fired oven). Photography by Evy Mages

“Fast-casual” has come to encompass a huge variety of restaurants, from bowl-centric chains to cheffy places that are just a touch quicker and less expensive than full-service restaurants. Piccolina, which opens today in CityCenter, falls in to the latter category. Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein created the 20-seat, all-day cafe as a casual complement to her upscale Italian restaurant and market across Palmer Alley. Think counter-service, but still the kind of place you can get a plate of prosciutto, hand-spun mozzarella, and an Aperol spritz for those who want to linger.

Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
A small beverage menu features coffee drinks, house wine, and (pictured) an Aperol spritz.
Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
Dishes like omelets are cooked in the wood oven in custom-made cast-iron skillets with long handles.

A wood-fired oven turns out breakfast and all-day menus in the bright space (formerly Rare Sweets). Whereas Centrolina’s menu focuses on pastas and roasted meats and fish, Piccolina homes in on Italian breads, sandwiches, and wood-baked dishes like omelets and parms. The latter are fired in long, cast-iron skillets custom-made by woman-owned blacksmithing studio, SL Metalworks, near San Francisco. Brandwein spent time in the area taking bread classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute as well as touring parts of Italy to learn about regional baked specialties like scacce, a stuffed Sicilian flatbread (at Piccolina it’s baked with homemade lamb sausage, cheese, and rapini). She also mastered panuzzo, a puffed flatbread from Campania that’s slashed and filled with ingredients like porchetta, provolone, mustard greens, and salsa verde or a meatless mix of vegetables, pesto, and cheese.  Around eight varieties of breads  are available around the opening—available for dining or retail—including rosemary focaccia, ciabatta, baguettes, and walnut-raisin ficelle.

Italian breads abound, like this stuffed Sicilian scacci with homemade lamb sausage and rapini.
Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
A half-grapefruit breakfast is charred in the wood oven.

Given the baking bent, Italian breakfast is served all-day alongside Vigilante espresso and coffee drinks. (The cafe is open 7:30 AM until 9:30 PM.) Patrons can order egg-and-cheese sandwiches on freshly baked brioche, sweets like bomboloni (doughnuts) or bignè (cream puffs), and wood-fired omelettes filled with ratatouille. Brandwein also riffs on the classic half-grapefruit breakfast, charring the sliced fruit in the oven with caramelized sugar on top. 

For the lunch and dinner crowd, there’re heartier dishes like eggplant parmesan, spinach lasagne, homemade meatballs, and vegetable sides such as turmeric-roasted carrots with yogurt. Match it all with house wine—one-each red, white, sparkling, and rose—served by the $10 glass or $15 carafe, or an “Amy’s Palmer”—a riff on the Arnold with lemon granita and iced tea. 

Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
Panuzzo, like a hybrid pita-calzone, is stuffed with the likes of porchetta, greens, and cheese.
Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
Patrons can get grab-and-go sweets like canoli.

On the heels of Piccolina’s opening, Brandwein plans to temporarily close Centrolina’s market for the summer in order to expand the restaurant’s dining area (which will remain open). A few grab-and-go items like pesto or chicken salad will move to Piccolina, while the team plans to open an online retail shop for the purchase of fish, meat, produce, and Italian pantry items. The revamped space is slated to reopen in the fall with a smaller retail footprint. Brandwein says it’s all she has on tap for now.

“I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. The more you do, the more it can take away for the food,” says Brandwein. “I know how I want to spend my day.”

Piccolina. 963 Palmer Alley, NW. Open daily, 7:30 AM to 9:30 PM.

Piccolina City Center DC Amy Brandwein all-day Italian cafe with breakfast lunch dinner.
Brandwein’s Italian answer to avocado toast: an avo-tomato “carte musica” (a thin flatbread).

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.