While driving down Agua Fría Street, it’s easy not to look out the window. Most of the time there is little to see, just the car repair shops, consignment stores and vaguely country-feeling vacant lots of Santa Fe’s unglamorous backstage. But if you happen to look out the window as you near the corner of Agua Fría Street and Siler Road, something might pop into view among the industrial shells, vacant lots and warehouses — an Italian restaurant, incongruously peeking out from the lot next to a busy gas station, like a mirage for a starving man running errands.

This spot, formerly a gas station itself and then a Church’s Chicken, seems an unlikely place for the city’s epicenter for homestyle Italian food. But Piccolino has sat on that lot for a dozen years already, and a faithful crowd of regulars attests to its status as a bona fide hidden gem.

Unpretentious, comfortable and homey, Piccolino has a distinctly East Coast or Chicago vibe, a place that would spring up in a city with a lot of Italian immigrants, down to the merry black-and-white checkered plastic tablecloths that let you know this is a place meant for eating splashy, saucy food with joyous abandon. It even has a drive-thru window (a vestige of its previous life as a Church’s Chicken), so patrons can call ahead (roughly 15-20 minutes) and pick up their to-go orders without having to park.

Piccolino’s is a family restaurant in the old-fashioned sense of the word — that is, it’s owned and run by an actual family.

“This restaurant is four partners — my brother, his wife, my husband and myself,” says co-owner and manager Olga Tarango-Jimenez, who presides over the restaurant like a friendly, benevolent party hostess who makes pasta suggestions. The Tarangos and Jimenezes are originally from Chihuahua by way of Los Angeles, and Olga Tarango-Jimenez and her brother Victor Tarango (who is in charge of the kitchen) both worked in Italian restaurants there for years.

“When you first come to the U.S., the first job you get is housekeeping,” says Tarango-Jimenez. “So that’s how I started and my sister-in-law started. And then luckily, the lady I started working for helped me to learn English, and she moved me into one of her restaurants as cashier. Then cashier to serving, delivery, catering, the whole thing.” That restaurant was Maria’s Italian Kitchen, a successful Los Angeles chain with very familiar black-and-white tablecloths and a comforting New Jersey-style Italian menu.

Then, while on vacation in Santa Fe, members of the Tarango and Jimenez family found themselves driving down Agua Fría, and at some point near Siler, somebody looked out the car window. There was a restaurant for rent, as if waiting for them. Three days later, they had a lease.

“We gave them a blank check, and I said, ‘Don’t cash it because there’s no money, just wait for us to get back to L.A.,’ ” Tarango-Jimenez says. “And that’s how all this started. I guess it was meant to be, who knows?”

Family members had spent their professional lives working with Italian food, so the cuisine of their new establishment was an obvious choice. According to Tarango-Jimenez, she has been asked where the Italians are on occasion, but anyone who has ever peeked into the kitchen of any restaurant in the country knows that the whole panoply of international cuisines that we as a nation now enjoy, from French to Chinese to Greek-Swedish fusion, are all being expertly prepared in the back of the house by people from Latin America.

“We don’t know how to cook Mexican,” laughs Tarango-Jimenez. “We’re Mexican but we don’t know how to cook Mexican … the real Mexican.” It’s the same story at home, where like any other family, they eat what they like. “It’s a little bit of pasta with a little bit of beans kind of thing,” she says.

And in a town where much of the available Italian food is on the higher end, Piccolino’s menu is like a warm hug, a reassuringly encyclopedic list of almost every Italian-American flavor and dish — pasta, pizza, ravioli, even calzones. The menu is something right off a brick building in Boston’s North End, and reads like your mama’s Italian cookbook, but without the dirty dishes.

“You don’t have to follow the recipes — just follow the road,” laughs Tarango-Jimenez.

Here you will find your spaghetti and meatballs, your pasta all’Amatriciana, your baked ziti, much of it dripping with an eye-closingly flavorful marinara sauce (a recipe that Tarango-Jimenez says her brother Victor learned from an old Italian lady he used to work for), and all of it priced around $9 to $16. The emphasis at Piccolino is on freshness (fresh-cut vegetables, sauces made every morning, house-made ravioli, etc., unlike some chain restaurant Italian places I could name). Piccolino even bakes its own bread: dense focaccia, thick and oily and hot, to soak up those sauces, and makes most of its desserts in-house (including the tiramisu).

There are some distinctive original dishes, too, like the Lasagna Bolloco, a decadent white lasagna packed with Alfredo sauce, chicken and green chile, or Olga’s favorite pasta dish (named after her on the menu), which involves her favorite things, grilled eggplant and goat cheese. There are even dishes named after other friends and family members and regulars. Tarango-Jimenez is particularly proud of their regulars, and the warm family atmosphere of her establishment.

“We feel like family,” she says. “Our customers are part of our family. Some come once or twice a week. Sometimes we don’t have to bring menus — we know what they want.”

There are sometimes lines out the door at busy hours, but Tarango-Jimenez isn’t interested in expanding.

“You lose the magic,” she says. “Small is better. Everyone talks to each other. I’ve seen customers share dishes table to table,” Tarango-Jimenez says. “They say, ‘Do you want to try this?’ And they become friends.”

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