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Tuscany – Go to the tree in the middle of the road and then…

After picking up our rental car at the Rome airport (a small yet spacious Audi A1) we set off on the 2.5 hour drive to Pienza. En route we stopped in Orvieto for lunch and to walk around a bit.

In Rome we mainly had sit-down meals for lunch, so on our way to Tuscany we just wanted a quick sandwich. We saw the locals all walking around with sandwiches from the local grocery store, so we decided to follow their lead. Instead of a restaurant we enjoyed our lunch on the steps of the duomo.

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We wrapped up lunch, walked around for a bit, and then got in the car to finish the drive.

Exiting the Autostrade we drove through some small towns…then some smaller towns…then the countryside…and finally the road changed from tarmac to gravel. After the final stretch of careful driving we finally arrived at our bed and breakfast, the fabulous Pietramonti Estate.

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Pietramonti is run by two Brits, Charles and Peter, who left the UK five years ago to open a B&B. They spent the first three years obtaining all of the necessary approvals (made even more complicated by their location in a UNESCO World Heritage site), and the B&B has now been open for two years. The accommodations could not have been better and if you’re planning a trip to Tuscany I can’t recommend Pietramonti highly enough.

Each day started with a gorgeous breakfast full of freshly baked breads and muffins, as well as local fruit, cheese and meat.

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We’d linger over breakfast and cappuccinos for about an hour to an hour and a half each day chatting away with the other guests as well as our hosts. After discussing what we’d like to do that day Charles and Peter would give us suggestions as well as any contacts at wine shops, vineyards, etc.

My favorite lunches were at a small café in Pienza that initially drew me in because they were displaying a bunch of Slow Food literature, even though it looked like a simple sandwich shop. Pienza was a 50 minute hike from Pietramonti so we definitely felt like we earned our lunch the first day we were there.

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The caprese salad was easily the best I’ve had. The tomatoes, while delicious, were really just a vehicle for the perfectly creamy and salty mozzarella and gorgeous olive oil. I could have eaten this every day.

Cocktails started at 6pm every night and included Prosecco and a platter of two types of pecorino (from the farm next door), local salami, honey from the property’s beehives, and chutney.

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Then the dinner ritual began. On the first night Charles asked all of the guests what time we prefer to eat. From there he would take care of making us all reservations each night. Over cocktails we would receive our dinner “assignments” and a map to the restaurant. Usually the maps were hand-drawn, like this:

map

All directions started from “go to the tree in the middle of the road and then…”

Night 1 was Taverna de Moranda in Monteciello (“go to the tree in the middle of the road, and then make a right”). Taverna is run by a husband and wife team where he cooks and she runs the front of house. The wife is actually French, which has led to the locals referring to Taverna as “the French restaurant” even though she’s lived in Tuscany for 26 years. Many of them refuse to even set foot in the door. Well, that’s their loss because the food was wonderful. We started with fresh stuffed zucchini flowers, then moved on to fresh pasta with vegetables, and finished with some stellar lamb.

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The lamb was perfectly cooked and was well seasoned. I couldn’t get anyone to tell me what the seasonings were but they were an excellent complement to the strong flavor of the lamb. When I asked if the lamb was from nearby, our hostess simply chuckled and walked away.

Night 2 was Ristorante Dopolavoro La Foce. The restaurant was in an old building where workers at the nearby La Foce estate used to gather after work. The interior had been brought up to date, and most of the cooking was done over a wood-fired grill. We started with testaroli al pesto and then each had sliced steak for our main course.

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The meat was obviously wonderful, but for me the salt was what made this dish. The salt, from Cervia, is unique because it is unrefined. As a result, it maintains its moisture and mineral content, giving each grain a texture and flavor that you don’t get in other salt. It was almost soft and slightly sweet (while still being salty). I’m very tempted to order some to use at home.

Note that should you wind up here the drive is a bit of a doozy. It’s a good 30-40 minutes from Pienza through some very dark and twisty roads, even when compared to the other dark and twisty roads of Tuscany.

For our third night we went to Latte di Luna, which was right in the town of Pienza. This was my second favorite dinner in Tuscany. Latte is a small restaurant right at one end of the town, with a nice little garden space out front with tables. We started with housemade tagliatelle with black truffles.

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And then I had their specialty, roast young pork.

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Crispy skin, soft melty fat, the meat flavored mostly with the pig’s own juices. I can’t say I’ve had anything quite like it. I finished the far too large portion all on my own, which resulted in an awful night’s sleep but it was totally worth it. Oh, and the tagliatelle with truffles was pretty good too.

Night 4 was probably our least favorite dinner: Ristorante 13 Gobbi in Montefollonico. We decided that night to tackle a Bistecca Fiorentina. The steak wound up being larger than my wife’s head.

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Charles and Peter advised us to order the steak medium even though we like it medium rare. We tried, and this was the result:

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Don’t get me wrong, this was a great steak. There was just far too much, and even though I like my steak on the rare side, this just got to be a bit much to handle.

Charles and Peter saved their best recommendation for our last night: La Grotta in Montepulciano. The restaurant was located just outside the town walls, across the street from a beautiful old church.

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While the food was Tuscan, it was more refined than the other restaurants we had been to. Our first two courses summed this up nicely.

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A poached egg with pecorino buried under a mound of black truffles. Cutting into the egg and releasing the yolk, mixing the whole thing together…pure bliss.

Next we moved on to pasta:

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Gnocchetti in a zucchini and cream sauce. The little gnocchetti were impossibly delicate, and of course perfectly cooked. The cream wasn’t overpowering in the sauce, with the flavor of zucchini really coming through.

For mains, I had the boneless quail and my wife had the lamb. We finished with a simple plum tarte. Everything was fantastic. La Grotta definitely ranks up there with some of my favorite all time dining experiences.

The next morning we had one last breakfast with Charles and Peter before packing up the car and setting off on our four hour drive to Venice. Our departure had a distinct “last day of camp” feel but we still excited to be on our way to another part of the country. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to return to Pienza and pass even more perfect days at Pietramonti.

 

Tuscany restaurants (please verify any GPS directions with locals if you try to go to any of these):

Taverna di Moranda
Via di Mezzo 17
Monticchiello, Pienza Siena, Italy

Ristorante Dopolavoro La Foce
Strada Provinciale 40, Siena, Italy

Latte di Luna
Via San Carlo, 2
Pienza Siena, Italy

Ristorante 13 Gobbi
Via Lando Di Duccio 5
Montefollonico, Siena, Italy

Ristorante la Grotta
Via di San Biagio, 15
Montepulciano Siena, Italy

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Welcome to Italy…This is Rome

The first stop on our two week trip to Italy was Rome, mostly because we could get a direct flight to there from O’Hare (we’d be returning from Venice, through Philly, which turned out to be a total debacle).

After landing and stopping off for an Italian SIM card for my phone, we checked into our hotel and went stumbling for lunch. Our hotel wasn’t far from the Trevi Fountain so we went off in that direction. While I was looking one way, fortunately my wife was looking the other and spotted this:

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Decision made. Our first meal in Rome was at La Prosciutteria. We were tired and hungry so we didn’t spend a ton of time studying the menu. We wound up just getting some simple prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches. The bread wasn’t great, it had probably suffered from sitting around in the heat and humidity for a while, but the meat and cheese were great. The cheese especially. Nothing could have prepared me for how great the buffalo mozzarella would be the entire trip. A couple of sandwiches and glasses of Prosecco later we were feeling much better about life.

On our way out we saw other table ordering platters rather than sandwiches. If any of you wind up here, I would say the platters are actually the way to go. They looked beautifully constructed with various meats, crostini, fruit, etc. You can see them on the restaurant’s website/Facebook page. Probably my only food related regret of the trip was not making it back for one of those platters.

Dinner that night was at a little place that turned out to be right across the street from La Prosciutteria called Ristorante Sora Lucia. Highlights were the spaghetti carbonara (nice and eggy, as God intended) and a liter of their house wine for 7 Euros. The restaurant had no issues letting us linger at the table until we finished all of our wine, previewing the Italian hospitality we would enjoy the rest of the trip.

We spent the morning of day 2 touring the Vatican and the afternoon checking out the Tivoli Fountains. Lunch was at a totally unremarkable place in Tivoli, where we had some totally unremarkable pizza.

Our dinner at Roscioli that night totally made up for our mediocre lunch. Located in the back of a shop, Roscioli uses their higher-end ingredients to put out their take on a number of classic Italian dishes. Some are pretty basic and traditional, while others are a bit more modern.

We started with a gazpacho that also included pureed olives. I wasn’t nuts about it at first but the dish grew on me as we ate it. Then we had a gorgeous plate of mortadella with some shaved cheese. After that was one of the highlights of the entire trip: burrata and prawn tartare with bottarga

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Magic can happen when you have a combination of ingredients this good. The burrata was perfect. The raw prawns were pristine. And the bottarga added just enough funk to make it interesting.

After that we decided we should probably get something that had been cooked, so we got the Tuscan meatballs with chestnut polenta.

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The meatballs were good but there were, you know, meatballs. The polenta was the special part of this dish. Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The addition of chestnut gave the polenta a comforting quality that made it a perfect match with the meatballs (presence of Nonna unknown).

After dinner we ate gelato in front of the Pantheon, which was awesome on several levels.

The next day our guide took us on an all-day tour of the city, which wound up expanding outside of the city a bit which is where we had lunch. The family that owns the restaurant where we had lunch also owns a farm where they raise chickens. They serve this chicken in the restaurant as their specialty. It couldn’t be more simple. They take half the chicken and flatten it. Then they cook it in a cast iron pan with olive oil, salt, and white pepper with a 10 pound brick on top. The result was one of the better fried chicken dishes that I’ve had. Unfortunately I can’t find the name of the place but if anyone is curious I can try to track it down.

We didn’t have a dinner reservation for that night, but I spotted a little neighborhood place on the way home from Roscioli the night before that looked promising called Pesci Fritti.

For an appetizer we obviously started with some fried seafood. The plate included calamari, anchovies, and a bunch of different vegetables. Everything was well fried and nicely salted. Then I moved on to spaghetti vongole, one of my favorite Italian dishes and something I order at least once at almost every Italian restaurant that I go to.

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This version didn’t disappoint. The pasta was perfect, like it was just about everywhere we went, and the clams were tender and sweet.

We passed on dessert but they still brought us a plate of homemade biscotti and glasses of vin santo.

Pesci Friti turned out to be a great choice. It was truly a neighborhood restaurant with not a tourist (except us) in sight.

We spent our last full day in Rome touring Pompeii and then driving back along the Amalfi coast. Before setting off for Amalfi our guide drove us up the mountain to Tramonti hoping to find some pizza. Our guide took us to a restaurant that was supposed to have good pizza, but apparently they only make it for dinner. We stayed and had some pasta, but it was our appetizer that was the highlight of the meal.

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Local olives and fresh mozzarella from the farm across the street. To me, this plate was the embodiment of the food in Italy at its best. Just let simple, local, high quality ingredients speak for themselves. For dessert we had some lemon ice from a street vendor outside. The region is known for its lemons, and the ice made for a nice tart finish to our lunch.

Our last dinner in Rome was our only real high-end dinner there: Antico Arco. While everything was good, I probably enjoyed it the least out of our Rome meals. It was certainly the most “technique heavy”.

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Top row left to right: Ricotta and black truffles with asparagus and egg, Piedmonts’ Fassona beef steak tartare with green beans
Bottom: Cod fillet, basil ‘panzanella’ and tarragon

After dinner we strolled over to a nearby park and hung out with locals listening to some street musicians while taking in a view of the city. Just a fantastic ending to our time in a city that I immediately fell in love with.

The next morning we were off to the airport to pick up our rental car. It was time to drive to Tuscany…

 

Rome Restaurants:

La Prosciutteria
Via Della Panetteria 34
Fontana Di Trevi, 00187 Rome, Italy

Ristorante Sora Lucia
Via della Panetteria, 12
00187 Rome, Italy

Roscioli
via dei Giubbonari 21-22
00186 Rome, Italy

Pesci Fritti
Via di Grotta Pinta 8
00186 Rome, Italy

Al Valico di Chiunzi
Via Chiunzi 91
84010 Tramonti, Italy

Antico Arco
Piazzale Aurelio 7
00152 Roma, Italy

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Some Quick Thoughts on Italy

The Grand Tour has come to an end. We just returned from an amazing two week trip to Italy: 4 nights in Rome, 5 nights in Tuscany (just outnights in Venice). I’m going to try to do a post for each stop, but I wanted to jot some quick thoughts down while the trip is still fresh in my mind…

  • All of the people we met along the way could not have been nicer or more welcoming. From our guides to various places in Rome, to the waiters in all of the restaurants, to the people who worked in our hotels. It made navigating a foreign country where neither of us spoke the language so much easier.
  • I was concerned before we left that I would get burnt out on Italian food given how long the trip was. Definitely not the case. The cuisines of Rome, Tuscany, and Venice were different enough to keep things interesting for all two weeks.
  • That being said, I was seriously craving seafood by the end of our time in Tuscany.
  • All of the pasta we ate was so much better than what I’ve had in the US and it wasn’t even close.
  • I think what makes it hard to transfer the food in Italy to the US is the quality of the ingredients. This is especially true of what we ate in Tuscany. The food there is extremely straightforward, but it’s also EXTREMELY local. Like, if it doesn’t come from within about 30-60 minutes away you’re not eating it.
  • Venice has roughly 1 billion tourist restaurants, but they are mostly easy to avoid given a bit of research. We also tried to stick to the guideline of not eating at any restaurants named for the attraction they were near (e.g., Ristorante San Marco, Trattoria Rialto, etc.). I think we did pretty well in Venice, especially after being warned by multiple people about the food there.
  • Breakfasts in Tuscany generally lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and always involved 2 cappuccinos. It’s very easy to get used to that lifestyle.
  • The best pizza we had was in Venice.
  • We ate surprisingly little gelato, but the best we had was in Pienza.
  • The hardest thing to do in Italy is leave a restaurant.
  • Stopping for cicchetti is such a wonderful thing. Stopping for cicchetti and a Aperol spritz is an even better thing.

Again, just some quick thoughts. I’ll try to get individual posts on each stop up over the coming days.

How a Diner Feels About Tickets for Restaurants

Alinea/Next/Aviary owner Nick Kokonas wrote a thorough explanation of the thinking behind the ticketing system that he created for his restaurants. I agree with Kokonas that tickets are GREAT for restaurants, as the main advantages of the system are minimizing no shows and basically locking in a certain level of revenue per customer. In his own examples he mentions that the first Next menu brought in over $500,000 in revenues in the first two days. What restaurant wouldn’t want that kind of money up front? Plus he realizes every tech entrepreneur’s dream of replacing people with robots (kidding…sort of).

But I still think that the system, at least the way Next has used it, is too unfriendly towards the consumer. Kokonas broke his advantages down into six points, so here’s my point of view on each:

It creates transparency of process for customers and builds trust and loyalty

Kokonas knocks OpenTable for not providing an accurate representation of a restaurant’s availability at a given night and time. That is one of the more annoying things about OpenTable. And who wants to be bothered to pick up the phone and talk to an actual human? So the transparency thing is a somewhat valid point, though what’s to prevent a restaurant selling tickets to hold some back or run special sales for VIPs? Given that, I’m not so sure the “trust and loyalty” argument really flies. To me, there are other ways to make a diner feel that “trust and loyalty”.

It acknowledges that there are better / worse table times, and shifts demands accordingly / It moves pricing in TWO directions, which is key

These two points are really related. Restaurants should have the ability to charge more for primetime tables and less for off-peak tables, basically borrowing pricing strategies from the airline and hotel industries. Makes sense, but it’s a shame that you can no longer get the deeply discounted tables that we saw at Next when they first opened. I did think it was cool that Alinea offered deeply discounted tables the night of the Super Bowl.

It supports the notion that table management should be visually simple for the restaurant managers and the customer alike. And ticket systems need table management!

I’m sure that’s great for whoever is using the system at the restaurant. I have no idea how the back-end of OpenTable compares to Kokonas’ system. In terms of what the diner sees, my experience hasn’t been so “simple” when it comes to buying Next tickets.

First I have to log in to the site. Then I have to enter a Captcha. Then I have to enter another Captcha because I’ll inevitably get the first one wrong. Then I have to figure out the day, time, and pricing to book a table. I haven’t had any issues with the system accepting my credit card information, but I know others have.

When I book a reservation on OpenTable, I go to the site, enter my date and time, and I can just click right on the reservation I want for whatever restaurant I want. The whole thing takes roughly three seconds. And there’s an easy to use app if I’m not near a computer. Also, if I need to make a change, say move my time back 30 minutes or add an extra person to my party, it’s incredibly easy. I can even use any browser I want.

Kokonas’ system has to become that user friendly to really be advantageous for the diner.

It creates a direct connection between restaurant and patron.

Maybe Kokonas’ system allows restaurants to better keep track of what a diner likes or doesn’t like. In the past, before implementing the current system, Alinea did a wonderful job of this. In fact, they were pretty scary about remembering your preferences. But a lot of restaurants are good at that, particularly at the high end. If Kokonas’ system can make a restaurant even better, I say great.

It does not penalize success

Kokonas’ system doesn’t charge a restaurant per transaction. Frankly I don’t see any restaurants that use OpenTable lowering their prices if they move to Kokonas’ system, but if they want to up their profits a bit in an industry with razor thin margins, I say go for it.

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I think there are a lot of advantages for restaurants using a ticketing system that can potentially be passed along to benefit the diner. Better customer preference management, the potential to adjust pricing in a customer friendly way, and being able to keep some profits in house to invest in a better dining experience (or maybe pay for the good folks working at the restaurant).

But at the same time, advance booking and payment shifts much of the balance of power in the relationship to the restaurant. An inflexible system that can be hard to navigate really sells the diner short. Kokonas mentions that the current system is essentially a beta test so maybe some of these issues can be cleaned up. After all, there’s no reason to avoid improving on the current restaurant/reservation business model. I’m a big believer that just because something has been done a certain way in the past it doesn’t mean that it should always be done that way. Innovation is a wonderful thing, and I’d love to see Kokonas further innovate for the benefit of everyone.

Life Outside the Food Internet

If you’re reading this post you probably got here via Twitter. If you follow me on Twitter, it’s more than likely because you’re interested in Chicago-related restaurant discussion. We’re fortunate here in Chicago to have a vibrant community of smart and engaged folks who love to chat about food on Twitter, and the result is that there’s a ton of information constantly streaming about the local restaurant scene.

But I think what we forget sometimes, or maybe it’s just hard to quantify, is that there is another (probably larger) part of the population that is completely removed from this discussion. Believe it or not, there are actually people out there who are capable to going to a restaurant and not dissecting it on social media, or posting #tons of #pictures of their #food on #Instagram.

This occurs to me every so often when I find myself at an otherwise very good and very busy restaurant that no one I know ever talks about. It happened this past weekend at Taxim. Taxim got a bunch of buzz when they first opened in 2009, but hardly anyone on Food Twitter ever really talks about it anymore. The last LTH Forum mention was almost a year ago. The place does have about 260 Yelp reviews which, for a 5 year old restaurant, breaks down to only about 1 review a week. And yet my meal there this weekend was fantastic. One of my most enjoyable of probably the last six months. Most interestingly, the place was packed. Who are these people?

I’m sure there are many other examples of this around town. Coco Pazzo (245 Yelp reviews, open since 1992) is another that I can think of off the top of my head. That place is usually busy, the food is always good, and nobody I know goes there (or if they do they don’t talk about it). Porkchop has become a joke among a few of us for being the perfect representation of restaurants in this category. I mean, who ever goes to Porkchop? Well, apparently enough people for them to be opening two other locations. In fact, they have 20 more Yelp reviews than Taxim and they’ve only been open since 2011.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is other than it’s a good reminder to not ignore restaurants just because they don’t happen to be the flavor of the month. Or if they don’t come up on people’s lists of recommendations, year-end lists, or lists of 18 places to get a wonut. A good restaurant is a good restaurant, and those of us who tend to obsess over this stuff are more likely to be the exception than the norm.


 

Just for reference, here are the top ten most reviewed Chicago restaurants on Yelp. Not a bad list, actually.

Ceres Table – The Restaurant East Lakeview Needs

I’ve lived in the vicinity of the Lincoln Park/Lakeview border since moving to Chicago in 2001. When I first arrived the dining options around me were dreadful. I ate at Duffy’s a lot, but that was fine since I was a 22 year old former frat guy working in consulting. Fortunately though, as my tastes matured, so did the restaurant scene in the area.

If you start south of Fullerton on Clark Street and work your way north (switching over to Broadway once you hit Diversey), you can come up with a pretty solid list of places to eat. Riccardo (I prefer Enoteca of Trattoria), Eleven City Diner, del Seoul, Lito’s Empanadas, Senza, Crisp, Pastoral/Bar Pastoral, Flub-a-Dubs…you can really do a lot worse. What was missing though was a nicer sit down place with “grown up” food, but nothing too serious, stuffy, or expensive. Chilam Balam is probably the closest thing we have, but they don’t take reservations and that usually keeps me away from nicer places.

Ceres Table has stepped in to fill that void. We made a last minute reservation for Friday night and had a great meal, sharing a bunch of charcuterie, crudi, pasta, and cheese. We also wanted pizza but unfortunately the oven wasn’t working.

The beef tartare is a wonderful version, the meat well diced and with an excellent mustard to mix in. Amberjack crudo was made with high quality fish, but could have used a touch of acidity (maybe lightly pickle the cucumbers that it came with). Arancine were fried perfectly and had just a little bit of melty taleggio in the interior. Spaghetti nero had a nice kick to it and the bites of cuttelfish mixed in were well cooked (neither chewy or mushy). Instead of dessert we finished with some cheese: crescenza stracchino (closer to butter than cheese, which isn’t a bad thing), taleggio, and pecorino sardo.

I never went to the original Ceres Table location. But given our dinner last night and the fact that this location is within walking distance from our place, I think we’ll be going to this location often. It’s a great menu for either nibbling or a proper meal, and both the wine and cocktail lists have a lot of interesting options.

Welcome Ceres Table. I think you’ll be here a while.

Cicchetti – Blending into a Crowded Field

We had tickets last night to Buyer and Cellar at the Broadway Playhouse, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out Cicchetti, which is just a short walk away.

I arrived early and had a drink at the bar, a good Manhattan with one of those giant ice cubes that make you feel like you’re drinking a Serious Cocktail. They had bowls of cold, somewhat limp potato chips sitting on the bar for snacking.

The space is sort of interesting. It’s loft-like without actually being a loft. But then the room oddly opens up to the Soprafina next door. Now, I have no issues with Soprafina. They’re a minor part of my office lunch rotation. But it’s a little strange to be enjoying a “nicer” meal while a doctor in scrubs is enjoying his panini about 10 feet away.

The appetizers were the weakest part of the meal. We had the cobia crudo and the aged hangar steak carpaccio. Both dishes were victims of flawed concepts. The cobia was served on rice crackers in a pool of harissa. The first bite was a nice mix of textures and flavors (particularly the smokiness of the harissa) but over time the rice cracker became soggy from both the fish and the sauce. By the end of the dish the textures had become pretty unappealing. The carpaccio had a funk to it that has no place in a good steak carpaccio. I don’t know if it was the aging, the cut, the cauliflower served on top, or a combination of the three, but it was a disappointing take on what is usually a lay-up of a dish.

Main courses were more successful. I had the squid ink orecchiette with lamb soppressata. The pasta was decently made (though probably a little too flat) and was well cooked. The hunks of lamb soppressata packed a good amount of heat. There were also Brussels sprouts involved, diced and maybe fried, adding some crunch. I enjoyed the dish, and Marissa enjoyed her saffron risotto with a fried egg.

Dessert was my favorite course. I had the Reverse Affogato, coffee gelato with vanila milk and donuts. My one criticism is that there were too many donuts, which is probably the worst bit of restaurant criticism ever written. The point is, you should plan on sharing at least the donut portion of the dish.

Cicchetti has been pretty well reviewed from what I’ve seen. But the problem is that we have so many Italian restaurants opening now (roughly 7 each day*) that it’s hard for any of them to stand out. And I don’t think Cicchetti really stands out. Marissa commented on the way to the show that we could have gone to Bar Toma (which I don’t really like) and have had a comparable meal. I’m sure Cicchetti will do well given it’s location, but it’s not a restaurant I see myself having any desire to go back to.

 

 

 

* Figure may not be accurate