A Taste of Sicily in the Mountains of Montana
Piccola Cucina has five restaurants: three in New York City, one in Ibiza, Spain, and one in Red Lodge, Montana, population 2,200.
Red Lodge anchors one end of the spectacular Beartooth Highway and is a gateway community for Yellowstone National Park. Visiting the park requires driving through Beartooth Pass, which, at over 10,000 feet, closes for the winter. The town is primarily a summer destination, and Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture (the delineation for the Montana location) is seasonal as well.
This restaurant outpost is thanks to the urging of guests at a New York City location, residents of Red Lodge who wanted to bring the dining experience to their hometown. Chef Benedetto Bisacquino ventured from the city six years ago to check out the possibilities.
Finding Community — and Diners — in Rural Montana
“We were curious, but weren’t supposed to stay long,” he said about that first visit. “But people really enjoy what we are doing and this town is like home now.”
‘What they’re doing’ is serving deliciously authentic Sicilian and Italian food. Bisacquino is clear — no dishes that aren’t served in Italy. That excludes American favorites like chicken parmesan and fettucine alfredo. At first, almost everything was new and different for patrons, even the lasagna with meat sauce and bechamel.
Bisacquino has gradually expanded diners’ palates with a different special every night, surprising people with original Italian food like rice balls and raw fish. They often think the octopus appetizer will be chewy, but are surprised by how much they enjoy it.
Now people come to the restaurant expressly for it and it the appetizer is a menu staple. In this way, diners have learned to arrive at Piccola Cucina with a sense of adventure.
“Last year, all the people in a big group ordered the yellowtail tuna and I couldn’t believe they all liked raw fish,” he said. “After six years, so many people trust what we are doing that they will try all of our plates.”
An Authentic Sicilian Experience at Piccola Cucina
Bisacquino is a stickler for authentic ingredients. For example, Bucatini Cacio E Pepe (bucatini pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper) has only a few ingredients and relies on the high quality of each one. Since these are hard to find in rural Montana, he imports a lot of things from Europe: octopus, giant wheels of pecorino cheese, artichokes, and yellow tomatoes. It makes the dishes truly Sicilian. He complements them with locally-raised 16 oz. grilled rib eye, since Montana is known for its world-class beef.
Piccola Cucina offers more than a taste of Sicily; it also offers an experience of the culture. The ambience is boisterous, with music and dancing accompanying the food, and the chef and staff – many with an Italian accent – mingling and talking with the guests. It adds to the feel of adventurous dining.
Bisacquino grew up in Sicily and started working in a restaurant kitchen at the age of 13. In the following 29 years, he has worked across Europe and in Egypt, including a stint cooking French food in Switzerland. Ten years ago, he was invited to New York and a return to the cuisine of his heritage at Piccola Cucina. His goal as a chef is to make the best food and make people happy. “This job is hard work, and feeling people love what I am doing makes it worth it,” he said.
Business is Booming, and Rural Charm Abounds
The arrival of the restaurant was well-timed, catching the cusp of a growth surge in Red Lodge. The beautiful, quiet mountain town was a strong community forged through hard winters. In recent years, the increase in seasonal residents and tourists has generated a hopping summer scene. People spend a couple of days in town while visiting Yellowstone. Guests from Billings, Bozeman, and Cody visit for a long weekend, or drive two to three hours just to eat at Piccola Cucina. In the first year, 13,000 people dined at the restaurant in three months. Two years ago, they served 25,000.
Since the New York locations tend to slow down in the summer, Bisacquino says some of the staff shift to Red Lodge for the season. “New York is beautiful but everything goes so fast there,” he said. “Red Lodge is a break, a chance to enjoy the summer a little bit. It offers a different way to work.”