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Venice, in small bites

A taste of the city through cicchetti, intensely flavored little bar snacks

By Joe Gray, Tribune Newspapers

October 16, 2013

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Didn't make it to Venice again this year? Not in the cards? (Or the budget?)

Content yourself instead with a taste of that romantic Italian city. After all, we eat to remember travels; why not eat to summon visions we've not yet enjoyed?

Venice has a diverse culinary history with myriad flavors. Nowhere else is that as apparent as with cicchetti — small, intensely flavored snacks served in bacari (bars) and restaurants. Think of the tapas of Spain or pintxos of Basque country. Cicchetti (cheek-KAY-tee) come in a variety nearly as infinite as the fishes in the sea — an apt metaphor since seafood figures large among these bar snacks, as you'd expect in a city built on islands: stewed squid over polenta, fried tuna balls, baccala (salt cod). And from the land, you might see hard-cooked egg halves, spicy rapini over polenta, fried polenta sticks with stracchino cheese and so much more.

Many of those are featured in a new book, “Cicchetti and Other Small Italian Plates to Share” by Lindy Wildsmith and Valentina Sforza. While Sforza covers the rest of Italy, Wildsmith zeros in on cicchetti.

“I just love Venice,” says Wildsmith, speaking by phone from London. And she loves cicchetti, from the years she spent living and working in the city. “I always wanted to write about them.”

She also claims as motivation that everything else about Italian cuisine has already been written. Perhaps. True or not, making cicchetti at home presents the Italophile — and other home cooks — with a wealth of dishes to try.

Cicchetti evolved from the necessity of kitchen economy, Wildsmith says, from cooks using up leftovers, especially liver and onions.

“There was not enough for another meal, but enough for a snack,” she says. Today they are served at any time and at every hole-in-the-wall bar in Venice — people often eat them standing out in the piazza. And they are solely Venetian.

“You won't find it elsewhere, even elsewhere in the Veneto,” she says, meaning the region of which Venice is the capital.

A platter of cicchetti might include skewered bites (food on sticks figure big in the bacari) like Wildsmith's fried pumpkin here, or a little something over polenta (another cicchetti staple, whether cooked, cooled, cut and fried or served creamy), like the spicy rapini here from Bar Ombra, in Andersonville, which specializes in the snacks, offering a couple of dozen.

While cicchetti are most often as simple as these, they can be more complex, such as the beans in peverada sauce, a condiment with a Renaissance pedigree with its combination of chicken livers, salami and anchovies.

Those anchovies impart flavor from the sea, as they do in a piquant sauce from Michael “Mikey” Sheerin that he created for his fritto misto (a mix of fried items, in this case vegetables). Sheerin is executive chef of Cicchetti, which has an opening planned for November or December in Streeterville. Its focus can be attributed to a motive similar to Wildsmith's.

“We wanted to create something that is unique in Streeterville (Chicago neighborhood),” says Sheerin. Though the restaurant will offer an array of freshly made pastas, the titular cicchetti will star. Sheerin, formerly of Trenchermen, Blackbird and other restaurants, is excited about playing with ingredients of the Italian pantry, such as agrodolce and gremolata.

“There's a lot of layering of flavors,” he says. “I've found an Italian fish sauce I plan to incorporate.”

That sauce, colatura di alici (made from fermenting anchovies), grounds his garnish for the fritto misto. The tender vegetables in a light, crispy batter require a number of steps but deliver you-can't-stop-eating-them flavor. A great addition to your home cicchetti platter.

Oh, and don't forget an ombra, a small glass of wine, or an aperitivo. A drink is always served with cicchetti, quite often a spritz, a refreshing combination of a bitter, such as Campari or Aperol, topped with prosecco.

And Venice? Maybe next year.

Spicy rapini with garlic and citrus over creamy polenta

Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 12 minutes
Servings: 8

From Bar Ombra in Chicago. The rapini stalks are served whole over the polenta. For a richer polenta, stir in 4 ounces mascarpone and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan.

1 bunch rapini

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Pinch kosher salt

1/4 tsp dried red pepper flakes

Zest of half a lemon

2 cups cooked soft polenta, see note

1. Break or cut the rapini into stalks. Trim the tough stems from the rapini, about the bottom quarter. Cook them in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, 2 minutes. Drain, save 1/4 cup of the cooking water. Cool rapini in an ice bath to set the color. Drain and dry rapini.

2. Place 2 tablespoons olive oil and the garlic in a large skillet; turn heat to medium. When garlic begins to color, add rapini, reserved rapini cooking water and salt. Cook until rapini is tender and cooking water has evaporated.

3. Toss rapini with chili flakes, lemon zest and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt. Serve over hot polenta.

Note: Cook 1 cup instant polenta in 4 cups water, following package directions. You will have extra polenta for another meal.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 200 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 38 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 9 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

Sweet and sour pumpkin stuzzichini

Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Servings: 8

From "Cicchetti" by Lindy Wildsmith and Valentina Sforza. For this recipe use a small pumpkin, also known as a pie pumpkin, or sub with butternut squash. We also liked this dish when eaten while the pumpkin is still hot.

1 pumpkin (2 pounds), cut into 8 equal pieces, seeds removed

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4 cups sunflower or canola oil

1/4 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put pumpkin in a baking pan; roast until just tender, 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook the onions with olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until tender, 10-15 minutes. (Do not allow them to color.) Add the vinegar; leave to cool.

3. When the pumpkin is ready, allow it to cool. Then pull the skin away from the flesh; cut the flesh into bite-size pieces.

4. Put the sunflower or canola oil in a deep heavy pan over high heat. Put the pumpkin pieces in a large plastic bag with the seasoned flour; shake well. (Discard the excess flour.) Lower the pumpkin pieces into the hot oil to fry quickly, working in batches if necessary; scoop up the pieces with a slotted spoon as they turn golden. Transfer to paper towels to drain; arrange on a serving platter.

5. When all of the pumpkin pieces have been fried, cover them with the onions. Leave to stand for at least an hour before serving. Dust with the chopped parsley. Serve on toothpicks or in dishes.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 91 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 2 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Fagioli beans in peverada sauce

Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Servings: 4

9 ounces dried fagioli beans (dried fava beans), soaked overnight, or 2 cans cooked fava beans tossed with a bay leaf and 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 slice bacon

1 bay leaf

4 ounces chicken livers

4 ounces sopressa or other top-quality salami

4 anchovy fillets

1 handful flat-leaf parsley (or a sprig of sage), plus more for serving

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 clove garlic

Zest of 1 lemon plus 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup wine vinegar (red or white)

1 ounce fresh breadcrumbs, about 1/3 cup

Soft polenta or crusty bread

1. Rinse the soaked beans; heat to a boil in a saucepan of water with the bacon and bay leaf. Reduce heat to a simmer; simmer until tender, about 1 hour. Add salt to taste toward the end of cooking time. Alternatively, use canned fava beans; rinse them before using.

2. Finely chop the chicken livers, salami, anchovies and parsley or sage together on a board.

3. Put 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet; add the garlic. Cook over low-medium heat. Discard the garlic when it starts to brown. Increase the heat; add the chopped ingredients and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste; cook 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, wine vinegar and breadcrumbs. Cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until the sauce turns velvety, 20 minutes.

4. Pour the sauce over the beans in a serving bowl. Stir well; drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with more parsley. Allow to stand for a few minutes before serving; serve in dishes over polenta or with crusty bread.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 261 calories, 21 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 120 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 907 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Fall frito misto

Prep: 50 minutes
Brine: 2 hours
Cook: 3-5 minutes per batch
Servings: 16

This recipe is from Michael "Mikey" Sheerin , executive chef of Cicchetti, a new restaurant with an opening planned for November, at 661 N. St. Clair St. The recipe makes enough for 16 small bites, or it can serve half that many people with a more substantial serving. For the Brussels sprouts, smaller pieces work best, about 1 3/4 inches in diameter. Colatura di alici, an Italian fish sauce, is difficult to find. You can substitute with another type; we used Red Boat.

Brine:

2 quarts water

1/4 cub plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt

Juice of 2 lemons

1 pound each: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, baby artichokes

Sauce:

Zest and juice of 2 lemons

2 ounces colatura di alici

1 habanero, seeded, chopped

1 teaspoon honey

1 clove garlic, chopped

Batter:

1 cup flour

1/3 cup each: cornmeal, cornstarch

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 bottle (12 ounces) lager beer, such as Peroni

2 quarts frying oil

1. For the brine, stir water, salt and lemon juice together in a large container until salt dissolves. Clean and trim the vegetables; cutting the cauliflower into bite-size pieces. Place into lemon brine; allow to rest, 2 hours.

2. For the sauce, combine lemon zest and juice, fish sauce, habanero, honey and garlic in a bowl, mixing well with a whisk; set aside.

3. For the batter, combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; add 1 Peroni beer at a time, stirring with a whisk (looking for thin consistency). Heat the oil in large pot or home fryer to 375 degrees.

4. Drain vegetables from brine; discarding brine. Spread on a kitchen towel. Once oil is heated to 375 and vegetables are semi dry, add veggies to batter and mix thoroughly.

5. Pull vegetables from batter in batches; fry carefully, stirring the veggies every so often so they don't stick. Remove from oil when golden brown. (They should be cooked through and crunchy.) Place on paper towels to drain for a minutes. Season with salt. Serve, drizzled with the sauce.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 79 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 350 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

jxgray@tribune.com