Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
Midway through eating a towering tangle of airy pork cracklins, dusted with Parmesan and rosemary, I realized something: The Cicchetti kitchen is having a hell of a lot of fun.
I have fun at restaurants all the time (especially when there’s a great cocktail program), but it doesn’t always seem like the kitchen is. On one visit, I was seated at a table that looked right into the kitchen, and it lacked the high-energy chaos I expect from restaurant kitchens. Instead, chef Mike Sheerin (Trenchermen), sous chef Phil Rubino (Acadia, Moderno), and sous and pastry chef Sarah Jordan (the Boka group), a ridiculously talented trio, seemed relaxed and at ease, a mood that carried into the dining room. It was a welcome break from the recent Italian openings that have felt stressful to dine at.
There’s nothing stressful about Cicchetti, where there’s room to move between tables and space to breathe. When we recently showed up for dinner at 7:15, sans reservation, the host told us she wouldn’t have a table until 9:30, but we could eat in the bar. When we said we’d just drink and wait, she turned up a table a few minutes later, but said we’d need to be done by 9:15—it was more than enough time for dinner, but evidence that people aren’t exactly rushing to give up their table. And there are plenty of reasons to take your time, starting with the bruschette, which are adorned with combinations like creamy duck liver studded with cocoa nibs, a thick slab of pork belly with fennel and golden raisin sauce and rich tuna conserva, cut with pickled shallots. They’re available in orders of three or six, but it killed me to slice the tuna in half to share, so you’ll want to make sure each person gets one of each bruschette.
The bruschette and cracklins (which are so good I wanted to order a bag to take home) are just some of the cicchetti, small Venetian antipasti typically eaten while drinking. Others are big, cured sardines served with creamy horseradish gremolata, pumpernickel crisps and dill, meatballs basking in tomato sauced laced with pancetta, and fried pancetta and brandade fritters with pickled aioli.
You could easily make a meal out of cicchetti plus some of the 20 classic and Italian-inspired cocktails. The Buongiorno, made with gin, Aperol, bergamot, lemon and egg white, is frothy and light, but the amaro provides a strong backbone. The Stiletto has an Italian red-wine base, plus vermouth and bitters, and there's some sweetness from the wine that’s tempered with the bitters.
But if you’re just going to stick with cicchetti, make sure you plan a second visit to explore the menu in depth. When I talked to Sheerin prior to the opening, he said Venice was once a major spot on trade routes, and its location meant that “there are a lot of Eastern influences and Western influences. I didn’t want to do just a red-sauce restaurant. We can use different styles of spices, peppercorn blends and make things like harissa, which is a big thing in the Mediterranean.”
The roasted sunchoke and baby artichokes, with balsamic caramel, are sweet and earthy, while the seafood stew is a glorious bowl teeming with prawns, lobster, mussels and octopus in a spicy piquillo pepper–tomato broth with fregola and puffed wild rice for texture. The pastas, made by Rubino, are also worth exploring: The gnocchi is served with a surprising collection of ingredients: celery root, braised pork, pear, dill and chestnut crisps, which made me rethink how I see gnocchi. The braised short rib ravioli, the filling a bit dense for the delicate pasta, comes with a tomato sauce so good I was appalled when our server removed our plate with a few spoonfuls of sauce remaining.
Aside from small blips in food—our meatballs were underdone and the brandade croquettes weren’t as enjoyable as a similar dish at A10—if there’s a flaw at Cicchetti, it’s the service. Servers weren’t sure what some ingredients were, particularly in the drinks, our table was cleaned off partway through with an unpleasant-smelling cloth and a long wait to order dessert seemed strange, given the need to turn the table over.
Despite the wait for dessert, the meal ended on two high notes—skip the pistachio gelato (it was almost rough in texture) in favor of the “cannoli” dessert (quotations mine). It’s made with chocolate ganache stuffed into thin pastry shells, circles of sweet potato flan, rich dark chocolate sorbet, balsamic pearls and blood orange. You’d never mistake it for an actual cannoli, but the effect is similar—it’s a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert. At the very end of dinner, a complimentary bottle of tart limoncello arrived at the table with two glasses. It's a thank you to diners from the kitchen but, really, it's us who should be thanking them.