A Primer on Cicchetti

The American sense of “Italian food” is derived from a limited and commercialized repertoire ultimately derived from Sicily and Calabria. But a mountainous land that was not unified into a single nation until the 1860s has evolved over the centuries to offer many distinctive local culinary traditions that survive.

Nowhere is this stronger than in Venice, the sole region never overtaken by the ancient barbarians, and the last region to join a unified Italy. Among Venice’s distinctive dishes are cicchetti. Cicchetti is the Italian plural of cicchetto. And a cicchetto is a primer - not of the paint or A-B-C variety, but a primer for your appetite.

A nibble. A nosh. An app. A starter.

Cicchetti are a big deal in Venice. There are specialized bars called bácari that are dedicated to them. There are cicchetti tours available to those who feel they can't manage it on their own. (Trust me, you can manage!)

Cicchetti are Venice's answer to Spanish tapas, French aperitifs, and Middle Eastern mezes.

Here, at home, we occasionally host hors d'œuvres nights, where we make an entire meal of small plates, consuming them with friends, sometimes while watching a movie. For us, it is a festive way to pass hot summer nights (in the comfort of air conditioning!).

In Venice, these hors d'œuvres nights take on a different social structure. You meet friends at a designated spot and then you hop from bácaro to bácaro and nibble and sip the night away.

You enter, peruse the glass cases filled with cicchetti, place your order, and then stand among the locals and enjoy the snacks come i Veneziani. Generally, this is not a sitting occasion, but a few cicchetti places have some seating.

Because we were new to this scene, Roque and Gabriella (our Venetian friends who both graduated from the University of Arizona) navigated our way to several of their favorite bácari.

We, along with throngs of other locals, enjoyed our cicchetti with glasses of local house wine, using a wine cask as our high-top table.

Our first stop was Vini al Bottegon, also know as Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, across a canal from some "squeri" - the somewhat chalet-looking repair shops for gondole.

We went next to Bácaro de Fiore, which was closed, but luckily we had been stumbled upon it two nights before prior to a mostly-Vivaldi concert in the Chiesa San Vidal.

We paused in Dai do Cancari, where locals bring their empties from home for a refill from huge demijohns. (They also have an amazing selection of the best Italian wines available.) We chatted with the amiable proprietor and some patrons from Germany about wines of the Veneto. Our third stop was Osteria I Rusteghi for our final nibble and tipple. This one is in the center of a maze of streets very close to our apartment, but we would never have found it without Roque and Gabriella’s guidance. Truly a gem for the locals.

After such tiny greatness, who needs dinner? A final glass of wine or prosecco rounds out the evening. And that is exactly what we did.

From my observations, there are two basic kinds of cicchetti - hot and cold. The hot varieties tend to be coated and fried: sardines, anchovies, eggplant, mozzarella balls, etc.

For the most part, the cold cicchetti were served on a small round of bread, sometimes toasted, sometimes not: shrimp, prosciutto, lardo, bacalà (salt cod), white anchovies, ricotta with pumpkin, etc. Sometimes they skip the bread and just give you a wedge of mortadella with a pickled pepper on top. They also offer small panini of cured meats, sausages, marinated vegetables, and cheeses.

While cicchetti are specific to Venice, Italy has many great little appetizers that we enjoy serving, but the experience of bácari and a cicchetti crawl (of your own making) is incredibly special.

I should also mention that cicchetti are not only for the evening. They are readily available at mid-day and even breakfast. In fact, when Roque met me to introduce me to the market, we stopped first at All'Arco for a couple of porchetta panini and a small glass of wine for breakfast. What a great way to start the day!

Today's cicchetti recipes will feature one we had there, one we like to serve here at home, and a recipe for the world-famous Venetian spritz.

The Venetian cicchetto that was served to us at Vini al Bottegon was new to both us, as well as to Roque and Gabriella - a slice of bread with a coarse tuna purée dusted with bitter cocoa powder. Unusual, for sure, but quite tasty! Interesting to use cocoa as a spice rather than a sweet.

Our addition to the repertoire is fried sage leaves. We generally make these for our most special occasions - birthdays and holidays. I made them for Mark's 60th birthday, and we made them again recently, ostensibly so that I could photograph them, and share the recipe with you. They aren't difficult, but do take a little fussing. We find that even people who don't like anchovies love them!

A couple of cicchetti with a Venetian spritz... what a lovely way to start an evening.

Cin Cin!

~ David

Cicchetti al Tonno e Cacao

15 slices of a baguette
4 ounces tuna packed in oil, drained (preferably Italian)
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Toast slices of bread.

Using a fork, break up the tuna and add mayonnaise and olive oil. Mix well - it shouldn't be too stiff. If it is, add a little more olive oil.

Spread tuna onto the toasted bread slices. Dust with cocoa powder and serve.

Makes 15.

Foglie Fritte della Salvia

40 sage leaves (unblemished and large)
2 tablespoons anchovy paste
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
olive oil for frying

Wash and dry the sage leaves. Mix anchovy paste, two tablespoons of flour, and just enough water to make a thick, spreadable paste with the consistency of cream cheese. Spread this filling evenly onto half the leaves, and top with the remaining leaves. Put the sage 'sandwiches' on a baking sheet.

Heat 1/4-inch olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the remaining flour in a bowl. Slowly stir in enough water to make a thin batter, whisking all the while; the batter should flow like heavy cream. Dip the leaves into the batter and fry in hot olive oil until crispy. Drain on absorbent paper towels, and serve immediately.

Makes 20.

Venetian Spritz

3-4 ice cubes
2 ounces Aperol
3 ounces prosecco
1 ounce soda water
orange slice

Put the ice cubes in a large goblet and add the Aperol, prosecco, and soda water. Stir to mix, and garnish with an orange slice. 

Makes 1 drink.

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