like so many dedicated restaurateurs, opening his first restaurant was a lifelong dream come true for nick nubile. in fact, there is a dreamy quality to the dining room, with its crimson accents, gigantic reproductions of paintings by raphael and da vinci all along the west wall, stately clothed tables and dark cherry upholstered banquettes. a shoji screen ends the main dining room. the space is effortlessly poised, but also quite comfortable. nubile knew his dream would finally come true when he met chef fabio hakill. the two italian-born men shared the urge to open a restaurant that would authentically showcase the vivid flavors of tuscany and abruzzi, the central regions of italy fabled for their access to some of the finest local ingredients in europe. after careful planning and design, fabio piccolo fiore flung open its doors in march 2007. there is a dreamy quality to fabio piccolo fiore, which features reproductions of paintings by raphael and da vinci and dark cherry upholstered banquettes. the convivial fabio is unusually eager to please. if you somehow can't find precisely what you want on the vast menu (and we certainly did), or if you want any dish prepared in any special way, the chef is only too happy to oblige you, provided he has the necessary ingredients on hand, and he usually does. he is completely adept at the cookery of northern and southern italy, having cooked his way through several of the best restaurants in rome, where most italian cuisines are served. fabio's crab cake is proud and high and fragrant, with not a jot of filler-nothing but buttery chunks of jumbo lump crabmeat. enormous fried calamari rings are unusually tender, especially given how large they are. the accompanying warm marinara sauce was quite thoughtfully prepared, not just splashed into a bowl from a big pot the way it too often is. fettuccine alla nicola is magically soft and creamy, yet without an ounce of cream. ground veal and sliced shiitake caps enjoy their delicately truffled tomato gravy; the dish needs to be finished with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, and so it is. shrimp and lobster risotto features chunks of lobster tail and claw meat, and carefully cooked shrimp, simmered in their shells to enhance the flavor. the risotto itself was pure and velvety with just the right amount of thickened liquid. veal toscano is a most welcome spin on veal milanese: a pounded, breaded and fried slab of veal loin is totally engulfed by a lightly dressed salad of quarter-inch cubes of buffalo mozzarella, sliced kalamata olives, diced tomatoes, diced avocado and leafy lettuces. even with all that going on, the sweet flavor of the veal still came sailing through. a nice hunk of lean grilled swordfish arrives in a lemony white wine and caper sauce. we should all avoid imported swordfish because it's overfished and high in mercury, but domestic swordfish is fine, according to recent research. i also think domestic swordfish tastes better. ricotta cheesecake often seems too wet to me, but fabio manages to pull off a firm and eggy disc of cheesecake with plenty of heft and just the right level of moisture. "fabio's special dessert" is a bracing mélange of grapes, pineapple, strawberries, cantaloupe and orange arranged over and around a scoop of vanilla ice cream, finished with a good dollop of grand marnier and a fluttering of chopped fresh mint. it must be said that, as the large dining room fills up, which it does most evenings, the staff seems overwhelmed. i would recommend filling out the staff a bit. fabio piccolo fiore demonstrates yet again why new york city is so well known all over the world for its great italian restaurants.
fabio piccolo fiore 230 e. 44th st. between second and third avenues 212-922-0581 entrées: $18 to $45, most under $30