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Flavors: Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture Pop Up: A Taste of Sicily in Red Lodge

Stella Fong

For the fourth straight summer, pop up restaurant Piccola Cucina of Ox Pasture will cook up a taste of Sicily in Red Lodge. Here, owner and Chef Phillip Guardione shares the food from his family. With Chef Benedetto Bisacquino or more lovingly known as, Chef Benny, the cuisine from the largest island in the Mediterranean will be offered up under the Beartooths until late fall.

Alexia and David Leschen started Ox Pasture as an incubation space for chefs. Chef Chris Lockhart and his wife Gina Burghoff were the first to be in the restaurant in 2015 until they opened their own eatery, Prerogative Kitchen, at the end of 2016. Since 2017, after an invitation by the Leschens to come to Red Lodge, the Piccola Cucuina team has offered up the fresh sun-drenched and sea kissed flavors from the bottom of the boot shaped country of Italy.

Credit Stella Fong
Chef Benedetto Bisacquino or Chef Benny presents a plate of "ARANCINI" rice balls with ragu and mozzarella cheese.

Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture is the sixth restaurant Guardione has opened. Piccola Cucina meaning “small kitchen” has four outlets in New York, and one in Ibiza Spain. In the Big Apple, each eatery serves up Sicilian cuisine with a different focus. Piccola Cucina Uptown just opened while Enoteca highlights wine with food, Estiatorio seafood, and Osteria, simple, inexpensive fare.

With a background from working for the Four Seasons Hotel, Guardione wants to offer customers different options with the same familiarity and service all the while providing a variation in dishes and surroundings.

Chef Benny first arrived in Red Lodge in the cold of winter. He said, “… when we come for the first time, and I come in February, I look in the town and I see the town is empty. I said maybe Phillip is crazy. You want to open here, there’s nobody.” However, Chef Benny persevered, remodeling the kitchen to the setup they have in their other facilities.

When asked what Sicilian food is, Guardione explains it is a cuisine based on tomatoes and olive oil. “Many products I bring directly from New York, from one truck, two or three times a month and the fresh product we buy here.” The food highlights seafood, and warm weather produce as eggplant and peppers, and herbs as basil.

Mostly the food is seasoned with family and relationships. Guardione and Bisacquino are boyhood friends and joined forces in their restaurant endeavor. “I grow up with Phillip, so he let me know what is best for him, and best for us, best for the restaurant, for the business. So from six years ago, we try to find the good way, and start work together. We open three restaurants, so I make good experience, and he give me a lot of chance, so for me, when I come to the USA, my life changed.” Guardione’s wife and daughter also work in the business.

Credit Stella Fong
"ARANCINI" dish at Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture. The popular starter item is made with rice scented with saffron and filled with ragu and mozzarella cheese.

The food is authentic, Guardione added, “Now is our heart, our background, where I come from. I come from there. You see our plate, where I come from right away.”

Dishes such as “Pasta alla Norma” with hand rolled pasta, tomatoes, fried eggplant and ricotta honor Guardione’s grandmother and memories of Sunday night family dinners. The sense of home is furthered with “Arancini”, Sicilian rice balls scented with saffron and filled with ragu and mozzarella cheese as the recipe varies from region to region, and “Grilled Sea Bass” a homage to the popular grilled branzino found in Sicily.

While “Grilled Octopus” has become a popular item for customers, the Piccola Cucina kitchen has adjusted their menu for the many requests for “Caesar Salad”. Though not authentic to Sicily, lore has it that the salad was invented in Tijuana by an Italian chef, the restaurant listened to customers. Chef Benny shared, “The most popular dish in the restaurant … I never see so many people eat Caesar salad like here.”

Credit Stella Fong
Erika Doddo serves up a summer refresher, "STRAWBERRY TOCACINO".

Guardione’s ultimate goal with Piccola Cucina is, “We make happy customer.” Along with the addition of the “Caesar Salad”, the “Lasagna” has been amended with the addition of sauce. In Sicily, Guardione explained that the stack of pasta with meat and cheese arrives at the table in Italy without the meat sauce and creamy bechamel.

At Piccola Cucina, for the fourth year in a row, Guardione said it best of his team, “Together we make powerful goal,” of bringing the flavors of Sicily to under the Big Sky.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.