There was more than one Italian restaurant to debut in December by a veteran restaurateur and a culinary dream team. I wrote about Nico Osteria, in the Gold Coast, a few weeks ago; now let's regard Cicchetti, a Streeterville restaurant that is doing with the flavors of Venezie what Nico is doing with Italian seafood.
Like Nico, Cicchetti has culinary cred to spare and offers delicious food in a charming, rustic setting. The owner is Dan Rosenthal, of Trattoria No. 10 and the casual Sopraffina markets (the latest of which is right next door to Cicchetti); heading up the kitchen are executive chef Michael Sheerin (formerly of Blackbird and The Trenchermen, the latter still run by his brother, Patrick), sous-chef and pasta whiz Phil Rubino (Acadia and Spiaggia, among others) and pastry chef Sarah Jordan (Blackbird, Boka and others).
One easy way to tell the two restaurants apart is that Nico is pretty strict, authenticity-wise, and Cicchetti is more playful; Sheerin is quick to call his food "Venetian-inspired."
The term cicchetti (chic-KET-ee) refers to little snacks — Venetian tapas, if you will — and accordingly, the menu starts with a series of rustic nibbles, among them brandade croquettes, roasted olives, excellent meatballs in a pancetta-enriched tomato sauce, and meaty pieces of house-cured sardines with pumpernickel crisps and a whipped horseradish gremolata. The pork cracklins, puffs of dehydrated pig skin dusted with rosemary and Parmesan (think gourmet Cheetos), are so addictive they should just call the dish "pork crack."
Among the larger antipasti are somewhat chewy rings of baby squid, drenched in a black garlic sauce that contributes murky, fermented flavors. Sized-for-two flatbread pizzas include a very nice version topped with fontina cheese and Mornay sauce, hen of the woods and portobello mushrooms, crispy garlic and a muted jolt of chili.
The menu gives customers a measure of control. The three varieties of bruschetta — duck liver studded with cocoa nibs; thickly sliced pork belly with fennel and raisin agrodolce; and tuna conserva with pickled shallots — may be ordered as a trio ($8) or sextet ($14). Paper-thin ravioli filled with braised short rib meat in a chunky tomato sauce (wherever there's a Dan Rosenthal restaurant, excellent ravioli is always close at hand) is offered in two portion options. And the house specialty, the persuasively spicy seafood stew (filled with mussels, lobster, octopus conserva and plancha grilled prawns) can be ordered in small ($34) or large ($64) sizes.
My advice, in every instance: Go big. God gave us doggy bags for a reason.
In addition to the ravioli and seafood stew, main course stars include a beautiful piece of slow-roasted salmon with a lively sofritto tomato ragu and a soothing orange emulsion sauce, accented with mandarinquat (a mandarin-kumquat hybrid). A sensational composition presents house-aged duck in thick slices of breast (the seared fat cap intact), nuggets of thigh meat sausage and leg meat confit mixed with smashed potatoes and tart, balsamic-soaked cippolini onions.
For lunch, or for light-eating dinner guests, the menu offers several composed salads, a very nice leek and potato frittata, and a terrific pork shoulder, provolone and fried egg sandwich with house-made, just-spicy-enough giardiniera.
Jordan's pastries pay scant attention to Cicchetti's rustic Venetian theme; instead, Jordan takes traditional Italian sweets and runs wild with them. One dessert she calls a "reverse affogato" upends the traditional espresso-over-vanilla-ice-cream dessert by drowning coffee ice cream in warm, malted creme anglaise (accompanying the affogato are "seasonal" doughnuts, which this time of year means cinnamon sugar, but look for fruit in the spring).
There is also a tiramisu sundae, which folds shards of frozen tiramisu into an ice cream base to create a tiramisu gelato; this is topped by hot fudge imbued with Fernet Branca Menta (a mildly minty aperitif), amarena cherries and, in place of whipped cream, aerated zabaglione.
But the most fanciful (and my favorite) dessert is the cannoli, which is so unlike cannoli there should be a disclaimer on the menu. What you get are thumb-length tubes of crisp pastry filled with dark chocolate hazelnut ganache, disks of sweet potato flan, a fat quenelle of dark chocolate sorbetto, candied blood orange and tiny balsamic pearls.
"If I'm going to do a chocolate dessert, I want to kill people with it," Jordan says. Mission accomplished.
And if all that sounds too intense, there are always eight flavors of gelati and sorbetti to choose among or mix and match, served with shortbread cookies (the pistachio gelato and blood-orange sorbetto are extremely good).
Service hasn't yet acquired the polish that the kitchen displays (one auto-pilot server said, "I'll get that started for you," when all I'd done was order a glass of wine), but the front-room managers are sharp, and the dining room, framed in oversize timbers with the display kitchen as the focal point, hums with controlled energy.
Beverage options include a compact, well-thought-out wine list, craft cocktails and a nice selection of beers, all attractively priced. And though I failed to put the bartenders through their paces, other than to confirm the presence of a very good negroni, the gently lit, soaring-ceiling bar is a place where I'd be happy to drink.
Cicchetti serves lunch and dinner and plans to add weekend brunch service in April. The restaurant has plans for outdoor seating as well — yet another reason to look forward to warm weather.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
671 N. St. Clair St.; 312-642-1800; cicchettirestaurant.com
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday
Prices: Main courses $14-$28
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; discounted valet parking ($14) with validation
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.