In Venice, where I have lived for most of my life, there is a culture of what we call spritz e cichetti.
The spritz, as you well know, is a sharp, luminescent red drink, traditionally served with one-third prosecco, one-third sparking water, and one-third bitter Campari or Aperol. It's enjoyed on ice with a slice of orange and an olive, almost by always in a rough glass tumbler, and always with cichetti.
Cichetti are small-bites, nibbles, tapas—food designed to sit somewhere halfway between a meal and a snack, as Emiko wrote in her post for Food52.
While cichetti are—strictly speaking, and as Emiko wrote—bar food, I have found that over the years I have come to relish this style of cooking and eating in my kitchen at home, too.
Largely because, unlike most "restaurant food" which often tastes better when cooked by a chef and served by a waiter, the cichetti in their sheer simplicity translate exceptionally well into a home setting: Serve them as an hors d’oeuvre to tide guests over until dinner is on the table, or skip appetizers and and linger over cichetti instead. Scale up the quantities, mix and match the flavors, pass them around and make cichetti your dinner. It's all good. Here's why:
- Because cichetti are intrinsically conceived to be eaten standing up, informally and balanced over a paper napkin, they absolve hosts from the need for providing their guests with cutlery, crockery or even a place to sit at the dining table. This is bliss—and means that when catering for large numbers, cichetti is more often than not my answer.
- They are also pleasingly simple to prepare. A classic cichetto (and a favorite of mine) is nice crusty bread, cut thickly and roughly, and toasted in the oven with a little olive oil to give it that decadent crostini feel. It's delicious as-is, or topped with charcuterie, cheese, seafood, or any manner of variations on those themes.
With cichetti, you can take inspiration from almost anywhere, while keeping things simple: a dollop of ricotta with half a juicy fig or a slice of honey poached plum; gorgonzola cheese, a salty anchovy fillet and a drizzle of olive oil; thinly sliced roast beef with a trickle of sharp salsa verde; lardo with a smattering of honey and a sprig of fresh rosemary; or slices of mortadella, thickly cut then sprinkled with roughly chopped pistachios. But, frankly: They're your cichetti, top them with what you will and what you have to hand. You can’t really go wrong.
Cichetti can, of course, come in more elaborate incarnations. In the really good bacari in Venice you will see the barmen serving up such delights as polpette, battered soft shell crab and char-grilled polenta or more elaborate tartlets. Russell Norman’s, Polpo, is at once cookbook and ode to cichetti, and I often turn to it for both recipes and inspiration.
One of my favorite recipes to make at home, nonetheless, are puff pastry tartlets topped with mascarpone, shavings of pecorino and char-grilled fennel. They are bite-sized and inspired by what we call pizzette, humble handheld pizzas of sorts are made from miniature rounds of puff pastry then topped with oozing melted cheese. It makes a pretty convincing case for skipping dinner altogether. Here are two cichetti you can make at home—whether you have a few minutes, or a few hours:
If you have a few minutes...
Crostini with Gorgonzola, Pear, and Walnut
- A small loaf of ciabatta
- A generous chunk of gorgonzola
- 1 pear
- 1 handful walnuts
If you have a few hours...
Fennel and Pecorino Tartlets
- 1 medium-sized bulb of fennel
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 320 grams ready rolled puff pastry
- 120 grams mascarpone
- 40 grams pecorino
- 2 tablespoons milk
What are your favorite appetizers and snacks to serve at home? Do you also love to serve cichetti? Tell us in the comments below!
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