The Venetians did snacking first with cicchetti, small savory appetizers, and now U.S. chefs are making it their own.
Antipasti is a custom throughout all of Italy. But in Venice, it’s a way of life.
The daily Venetian ritual of stopping at the local bàcaro is similar to an American wine bar but on a more intimate scale.
“Historically, bàcari were simple places; small, dark canteens where one’s thirst for wine could be quenched and his appetite calmed as early as 9 a.m. or in the evening hours before dinner,” says Zachary Tackett, with DeLallo Authentic Italian Foods. “Nowadays, you stop at a favorite bàcaro anytime your appetite calls for small bites that are paired with a favorite wine from the bar.”
In Italy, every meal outside the home is served first with an appetizer course; a small snack of olives, meats and cheeses to whet the appetite. In Venice, you’ll be particularly hard pressed to find someone who does not indulge in cichètti (the Venetian spelling), or cicchètti (the Italian spelling).
Cichèto is derived from the Latin word ‘ciccus,’ meaning “littlest quantity.” The series of mouth-watering titbit appetizers are often served on crostini or toothpicks. Traditional cichèto may consist of a boiled egg with anchovy; stuffed olives and cold cuts; or a slice of soppressa (cured Venetian salami) on grilled polenta. Today, you might find folpeto, a tiny boiled octopus seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon; or baccalà mantecato, a blend of codfish, olive oil, garlic and parsley.
“At the heart of cichèto is a dedication to simplicity, but that doesn’t mean so simple that it’s lacking in flavor,” says Tacket, whose favorite is as simple as a toothpick of olive, cheese and salami. A few more of Tackett’s ‘toothpick favorites’ include:
- Oil-Cured Olives + Black-Pepper Casalingo + Date + BellaVitano • Parmigiano-Reggiano + Calamata Olive + Prosciutto
- Gouda + Mortadella + Chili- Pepper Casalingo + Artichoke
- Gorgonzola-Stuffed Sevillano Olive + Garlic Herb Marinated Mushrooms + Salami
- Anchovy-Stuffed Sevillano Olive + Pickled Garlic + Calabrian Chili Pepper + Parmigiano-Reggiano
Tackett recommends keeping a variety of high-quality olives and antipasti on hand at all times for cichetti as well as a selection of cured meats and flavorful hard cheeses. “Start with the wine menu and create pairings based on the wines that you’d like to highlight,” he suggests. “Source high-quality olives and antipasti, as they will most likely be the backbone of your offerings.”
When dishes are this simple, quality is the No. 1 concern, he notes, as bruised or improperly cured olives can ruin a dish.
This makes sourcing ingredients critical, as cookbook author and culinary instructor Amy Riolo tells her Mastering Italian Certification class at L’academie de Cuisine, a culinary and pastry school in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“All Italian regions partake in the aperitivo, or Italian happy hour,” says Riolo. “Some bars, hotels and trattorie put out buffets of mini pizzas and quiches, breadsticks and various antipasti to keep customers happy until dinner.” Unlike cichèto, which can be eaten mid-morning, the aperitivo is only available late afternoon. “Plus, cicchetti are made with predominantly famous Venetian- inspired recipes,” she says.
In her cookbooks, Riolo focuses on cichetti that are healthful and use readily available ingredients outside of Italy. She cites local seafood, hard-boiled eggs, olives, baked polenta, pickled vegetables and small finger sandwiches as all good options. A few of her own favorites include: Gamberi al Limone (Shrimp with Lemon), Carpaccio di Verdure (Vegetable Carpaccio), Capesante agli agrumi (Citrus-Marinated Scallops), and Sfogi in Saor (Venetian-style Sole in Sweet and Sour Sauce).
“I don’t believe there is any need to improve on traditional Venetian cichetti,” says Riolo. “But I often need to adapt my recipes due to availability (of ingredients).”
As with many Italian dining trends, this Venetian snacking ritual is picking up steam in the United States. But most cichetti recipes include fresh sardines, anchovies and langoustines, which can be difficult to find in the U.S. That’s why some chefs have infused age-old tradition with New World flavors.
Seafood-centric cichètti can include fried smelts, shrimp and calamari. Traditional salt cod, or baccalà, can be prepared as a salad or spread. Other items to consider include charcuterie plates, meatballs, marinated olives, grilled vegetables, fried cheeses and rice balls, called arancini.
At Bacari GDL in Glendale, California—a Venetianinspired bar with small plates, pastas, pizza and wine by the glass or bottle—executive chef and co-owner Lior Hillel deliberately puts his own spin on this Italian classic. “I learned about traditional cichètti on a trip to Venice, which included All’arco, one of the oldest Italian taverns in the world.” In Hillel’s kitchen, cicchetti is a bit more involved than tradition dictates.
“In Italy, cicchetti is a quicker bite, not so much a meal. Here, we turn it into a dining experience,” he says, noting his incorporation of many Mediterranean flavors across the region, including French and Greek influences. Some of his more unique dishes include octopus served with Brussels sprouts and a fig slaw; ‘lamb pops’ with parsnip carrot puree and Italian salsa verde; and asparagus with green onion, romesco sauce, Parmesan cheese, and a sous vide egg.
“The special thing about cichetti is that the dishes are simple and straightforward—but the ingredients are high quality,” says Hillel. “You have to pack a lot of personality into a few bites when you’re working with smaller portions.” He recommends using bold flavors and incorporating acid, fat and texture to make each dish stand out.
Up the coast in California, Chef Valentina Guolo Migotto brings Italian tradition to Napa Valley from the kitchen of Ca’ Momi. With an “obsessively authentic” menu boasting Neapolitan pizzas and house-made pastas served alongside zero-pretension wines, organic house-brewed beers and all-natural craft spirits, Migotto nods to Venice in almost everything she does.
“I follow the traditional regional recipes and strive to replicate the dishes you savor in Venice as accurately as possible,” says Migotto. “It’s not my mission to improve; only to honor and re-create.”
She replicates the dishes she sampled from street vendors in Venice, who have access to some of the world’s highest-quality ingredients. “When you’re handling some of the most unique and fresh seafood and produce in the world, you let the ingredients do most of the work; quality shines through,” she says.
The Ca’ Momi menu includes some of Migotto’s favorite cicchetti dishes: supplí cacio e pepe (organic arborio rice, organic mozzarella, pecorino romano, black pepper); Folpetti (Venetian style baby octopus); topinanbur fritti (crispy sunchokes); and crostini ai fegatini (chicken liver crostini).
Like the street vendors she met in Venice, Migotto enjoys the classics and uses whatever ingredients are most available and fresh in her area. “My core culinary philosophy is that there is nothing [better]than the quality of the ingredients that are at the base of a recipe,” she says.