The day before Piccolo Pete’s grand opening at Papillion, owner Scott Sheehan stands by a new 25 gallon electric steam kettle filled to the brim with his family’s famous red sauce.
When I say newly installed, I mean just the day before. Her first kettle was dead and sat in the back. Out of sheer providence, a similar kettle was recently removed from a building on South 20th Street in Omaha. It was once home to a legendary institution, that of Piccolo Pete.
“I feel a lot better today,” Sheehan smirked.
Here is a 47-year-old man remarkably composed for all the weight on his shoulders. Any normal restaurateur can be a little frantic the night before the doors open.
Add to that a broken kettle. Add to that limited stocks of disposable serving cups and lids due to shortages nationwide. Add to that the freezing cold outside. And, remember, openness as a pandemic still rages on and in a time when restaurants are failing left and right.
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“I am excited and I am honored,” he said without irony. “My grandfather instilled in me the value of hard work.”
His grandfather was Anthony Piccolo Sr., who founded Piccolo Pete’s in Omaha in 1934. His uncle, aunt and mother all ran the store. He is the heir to the dynasty.
It was more than a restaurant opening. It is fate which is fulfilled.
I’m writing this post as a commentary, rather than just news, as it was never going to be a normal story. It became clear last fall at a Lincoln convenience store. As I stood at the counter wearing a Papillion Times t-shirt, an elder patted me on the shoulder. He had two things to ask me.
1. “Didn’t I know the Papillion Times was still in business?” Not the best start, but okay.
2. “I heard that Piccolo Pete was opening a back-up. How long will it take? “
This was followed by a short but charming anecdote about him and his wife and their favorite restaurant. He couldn’t wait to have dinner again.
News broke in mid-September that Piccolo’s, one of Omaha’s oldest and most beloved Italian steakhouses, was making a comeback at a restaurant in Papillion. Sheehan even teased him in a Facebook post in August, showing a phoenix rising from the flames.
Even in a fractured media landscape, the ad created an online bushfire in blogs and social media platforms. He even made the international website wetheitalians.com. The mention of Piccolo Pete sparks waves of nostalgia in the comment sections. First Communions, birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated there, as well as guests from other establishments.
Despite all the affection, from the mid-2000s there was a decade-long elimination of Italian culinary landmarks: Angie’s, Mr. C’s, Caniglia’s, Venice Inn and finally, Piccolo’s.
The customers were simply no longer there. Back then, people blamed the casinos, the growth of Omaha in the west, the chain restaurants, the shift to more casual dining, the declining middle class. In retrospect, there is something to be said about simple and pure indifference. If they are not fed, even the most expensive institutions disappear.
Sheehan is a tall “South O Forever” guy who probably didn’t like his eyes cloudy talking about his family. Seeing Piccolo closing was heartbreaking. However, after more than 35 years in the company under the tutelage of the grandfather, he did not go without a fight. Sheehan’s hands aren’t just muscle chunks from chopping, fussing, and cleaning. In all respects he has stamped and furthered his family’s legacy day in and day out.
“I said ‘I won’t let all of this go away,'” he said. “I’m putting this on the road.”
Even before the 2015 New Year’s Eve farewell dinners, Anthony Piccolo’s Mobile Venue food truck kept pace, serving up a handful of staples. The truck was Sheehan’s creation, an attempt to make the heart beat. We hoped that the food truck would be the way to reinvigorate the restaurant.
“The passion and the love are there,” he said. “This is why I was put on this earth.”
Renting the space to Dan Rannells, owner of the building near First and North Washington streets and adjacent to Twisted Vine Wine & Tap, is a huge step forward. A storefront home in Papillion, just 11 miles from the original base. Sheehan’s food truck served customers on the Twisted Vine’s back patio, so it seemed like a good, symbiotic relationship.
“Year after year it gets a little bigger and a little bigger,” he said.
In the best of dreams, Sheehan would have a full-service restaurant like before. Maybe the mirror ball is back, and all the steaks and prime rib. Maybe even in the old building that his great-grandfather, Joseph, bought and turned into a grocery store during the Great Depression.
What Piccolo was and what Piccolo might someday become was not at the forefront of Sheehan’s mind this Wednesday afternoon, but the grueling, slow, methodical work of preparation and cleanup.
To be clear, this is not a full service restaurant. It’s 1,000 square feet of glossy white walls, glossy stainless steel counters, and glossy floors. There are a few chairs to sit on while you wait for an order. The walls are dotted with memorabilia, framed family photos and a new Piccolo Pete neon sign.
The key is slow and steady. Go out until the pandemic is gone, then a few tables will be brought. However, diners are encouraged to take their food alongside the Twisted Vine for a glass of something on tap to accompany their meal.
The menu is a small, regular affair. They start with classics like the rib eye steak sandwich, chicken parmesan on bread or pasta, mostaccioli and meatballs, Italian beef, some salads and sides.
Since they’re already bombarded online, yes, the soups are coming. Mushroom soup and barley beef arrive. And the prime rib will be coming back as a special, along with other cherished items.
Step by step. It will take patience, Sheehan said. I have to get into the flow.
“I have faith,” he said.
Her mother and former owner, Donna, made it clear in a Facebook post that the family also has faith.
“May all the souls of our restaurant family be with you and around you this evening. You got this. It’s in your blood, and if you need a laugh to help you out, think back to your lemon days. I love you, make room for grandpa in the kitchen. – Donna Piccolo Sheehan