11.23.2013

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.

39 comments:

  1. Dear David, another wonderful Venetian post - love those! These special Italian appetizers are the kind of "food" that I adore, a little taste here and a little nibble there - interesting flavor combinations and a lot of fun. Now your two recipes are terrific - the combination of tuna and cocoa was totally unknown to me before but I love to learn and the recipe sounds very tempting. The fried sage leaves, on the other hand, I do happen to know. Delicious little morsels. I would so enjoy some of these right now - there was a lot (!) of cakes and cookies at the Christmas fair today!
    It certainly looks as if you had an absolutely wonderful time in Venice! And I am having a great time looking at all your fabulous posts/pictures!
    Have a great weekend, dear friend!

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    1. Thanks, Andrea! I was thinking that I only had one more post left for Venice but Mark thought of another! After a holiday break I will be doing a series from New Orleans! That will be fun!! The Christmas bazaar sounds fun - but glad I am warmer here! :)

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  2. The tuna cicchetti would make a great lunch, perhaps with a a mix of greens alongside. Yum!

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    1. Thanks, Susan! They did, in fact, make a great lunch last weekend when I made them and photographed them! (Although we skipped the salad and had grilled oysters instead...)

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, I felt I was tagging along as you enjoyed wine and the little nibbles. Loved the photo of the bridge on the canal.

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    1. What a nice comment, Karen - I bet we would have all had fun if we had been together!

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  4. after reading this wonderful post all we can think of is travelling to Italy and nibbling on those delicious snacks :-)

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    1. You two should definitely go to Italy! I know you would love the food!

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  5. I had no idea Venice had such a tradition of pre-dinner treats! I'm a huge fan of little nibbles because it's such a great opportunity to try lots of flavors.

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    1. Hi, LLL - Until we planned this trip, we had no idea either! And I have to say that it was a really tasty and very inexpensive way to have a dinner in Venice!

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  6. wow, what a fancy appetizer with a simple things...
    the cicchetti is tempting to try!

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    1. There are so many kinds. Another favorite (which shows up in the very first shot) is the ricotta and pumpkin! Yum!

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  7. David" this is such a classy post. The recipes are so fresh, especially the tuna - the cocoa was a surprise. When I first saw the pic, I thought you'd peppered the hell out of it. Then when I saw the recipe, I knew I had to try it!

    A petrol is new to me. I recently saw it on the cocktail menu somewhere and am very curious.

    Altogether, thus is the making for a lazy meal spent chatting the night away. xo

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    1. Colette - that is exactly whey I loved these cicchetti - they are a social event as much as good food! The spritz is a wonderful summer cocktail - light and refreshing! You gotta try one! xox

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  8. Ah, my favorite part of the day in Venice! We were there during the heat of August, and the cicchetti stop after wandering in the sun every day was my FAVORITE!! Thank you so much for taking me along on your Venetian adventure. Makes me want to go back again even more!! Grazie!

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    1. They are a great pick-mi-up (tiramisu?) at the end of a long day walking around, as well as a jump start in the morning! Glad you enjoyed the tour, Karin!

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  9. David - A wonderful, informative post about cicchetti! So happy you found I Rusteghi -- our favorite spot for imagining we were locals!! - Kirsten

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    1. Thanks, Kirsten! We loved I Rusteghi because only locals (and us) were there. So nice to get off the beaten path!

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  11. David, I love your Italy posts and I love looking at your photos! You guys had an awesome time. I love learning about the food traditions there and of course all that you're eating! Like this tuna with cocoa powder, how intriguing! But I can imagine it goes really well with it considering the slight bitterness of cocoa. And those fried sage leaves are wonderful! Great lost once again!

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    1. Thanks, Nazneen! I thought there would only be one more Venice post but Mark convinced me to do one more! Hope you can all stand it!

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  12. Aperol spritz!!!! My favorite drink! The tuna looks soooo delicious.

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    1. Aren't they the best? I find them so refreshing. Thanks, Ahu!

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  13. Such a great trip you guys made! It turns out most of us could live on cicchetti/tapas/meze instead of real plates of food. I certainly could! Here we call it 'picada' which means chopped, because originally it consisted of cubed cheeses and cold meats with some bread, olives and maybe pickled veggies. Nowadays, some places make small empanadas, fried mozzarella, bruschettas, tiny meatballs, etc as part of the affair. And again, I could live on this! Those sage leaves are brilliant David!

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    1. And now I have another style of appetizer to add - picada! Thanks for that, Paula - I love eating like that - so many flavors from which to choose!

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  14. What a wonderful post, David! I was a kid when we used to go to Venice, so I've never experienced this wonderful ritual. Although we sometimes eat like this in the summer when we don't want to turn tho oven on! Your photos are just stunning!

    We had a great time in NOLA - and on the Miss. River! Lots of interesting food to try as well.

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    1. Susan - this might be because when we were young, cicchetti weren't in their heyday. Next time you go, you will have to try these! Glad to hear you had fun in NOLA - can't wait for takes and recipes!

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  15. How is it that I missed these places when we were in Venice? This is very much like the pintxos you get in Spain's Basque region, where specialty restaurants adorn their bars with platters of toasted/untoasted breads topped with delicious goodies. I love eating like this!

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    1. I have never heard of pintxos, John - something to which I can look forward! To me, this is the best way to eat - getting to try so many flavors!

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  16. A cicchetti crawl sounds just like my kind of night out! It sounds like you both had a brilliant time - I am trying not to be green with envy :) I have never heard of cocoa being used as a spice and teamed with tuna before - it sounds a bit bizarre but strangely good at the same time - I am going to try it this weekend.

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    1. As I read your comment Karen, I thought, "Boy am I glad I didn't call the blog Cocoa and Tuna!" It is an odd sounding combo, but worth trying!

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  17. Hello, am new to your blog and enjoyed this post very much - I learned something new today! I love the Venetian Spritz recipe.. Looks lovely and refreshing, something to sip on over 'primers'!

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    1. Anna - thanks fro visiting Cocoa & Lavender! I hope you will continue to stop by. I enjoyed my visit to your Ladybird site! I hope you enjoy the Spritz - we will be enjoying them this weekend for our Thanksgiving treat!

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  18. A truly lovely post, David. Not only do I want to eat up everything going on here, but I feel it would be best in Venice. (For now I'll just imagine.) I'm so intrigued by the cocoa powder with the tuna -- I'm absolutely trying it.

    Wishing you and yours a happy, warm & delicious Thanksgiving!

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    1. Thanks, Valentina! Yes, I do think everything tastes better there. Maybe I need to go again JUST to make sure! :)

      Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, too!

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  19. David! This post has all my favourite things! Aperol with prosecco (I had no idea this was a Venetian drink!) along with those beautiful cicchetti - I am so curious to try the tuna with cocoa powder that I plan on making it this weekend! I know deep in my heart that I will love those fried sage leaves... wow!
    Ah,it is good to be back here - sorry I went away for a bit! x

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    1. Anna - I know you have been really busy with your coursework. I have missed you, but knew you would be back when you had a moment! Nice to see the buttermilk panna cotta this morning! :)

      The tuna and cocoa seems to be making quite the stir - I wonder if anyone will really try it, and then let me know what they think!

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  20. My delay in posting a comment in no way reflects how much I like this post--I love it! The Aperol spritzer sounds very good--we have some Aperol and Prosecco so I will be enjoying one soon. As for the chichetti--I did not know about them (in spite of visiting Venice twice!). The tuna and cocoa powder is really intriguing--who would of thunk?! Finally, the photos are luscious!

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    1. Susan - I remember seeing the Aperol on your bar when I was last there, and thought... "Maybe we should make spritzes!" But, as I recall, armagnac won out...

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