How to make the ideal cicchetti
Emiko Davies' guide to Venetian snacks to have with wine.
There is a tongue-in-cheek piece that both made me smile and gave me a lightbulb moment in Venetian journalist Sandro Brandolisio’s book on cicchetti of the 1950s and 60s (Cichéti: Ricettario dei cichéti preparati nei ‘Bàcari’ veneziani negli anni ’50–’60), where he describes the important tips for making cicchetti from the point of view of the bàcaro host: make them salty, make them spicy or make them hard to swallow, so you entice customers to drink more wine.
The classic goto (a small tumbler that holds about 125 ml ½ cup of liquid), or ombra (glass of wine) in a Venetian wine bar is much smaller than a standard glass, and they are cheap too, as are the cicchetti, which usually range from 1–2 euro each. A crostino with gorgonzola, writes Brandolisio, guarantees at least three drinks!
The lightbulb moment was that thanks to these enterprising hosts in the 1950s, some of the most classic cicchetti that you will be guaranteed to find today include a crostino smeared with gorgonzola, or anything with an anchovy on it, especially half a boiled egg. Boiled eggs in general are a must, and if you’ve ever tried to eat a hard-boiled egg without washing it down with something after, you’ll see why things that are hard to swallow without a drink are a classic type of cicchetto. Think polpette of all kinds and boiled new baby potatoes, too. One of my favourite bàcari serves simple roasted potatoes, strung on a skewer, heavy on the salt. They’re moreish and they do require that you order another ombra afterwards.
I would add that because eating cicchetti usually involves standing rather than sitting, and perhaps balancing a plate on the edge of a canal with one hand holding a drink, you need to ensure that you only need one hand to eat with. So, consider serving your cicchetti on a stick, such as a skewer or a toothpick. It used to be that large plates, platters, or even pots were placed directly on the counter and customers would use a toothpick to fish out the morsels, be it a baby octopus or artichoke bottoms. Toothpicks are a great way to ensure that nothing slides off too, especially, say, atop an egg.
Otherwise, be aware to craft your cicchetti with enough of something to help things stick – think mayonnaise or a soft cheese (gorgonzola ticks all the boxes, or ricotta or mascarpone for something more delicate) – whatever will ensure that when lifting the cicchetto to your mouth the topping will not tumble.
Opposite are some of the most classic cicchetti that make up part of the offerings you can find in Venice. They are so simple to assemble they don’t really need a recipe, but they shouldn’t be missing from a great cicchetti spread. Serve these combinations on a crostino of your choice – toasted or untoasted slices of bread or baguette, or rectangles of fried polenta – or even inside a small bun, like the perfect mortadella panini they do at Al Mercà. Remember to insert a toothpick in the
round things that may roll off.
- Gorgonzola with an anchovy
- Half a boiled egg with An anchovy
- Gorgonzola with half a juicy fig
- A slice of prosciutto, a ball of melon and a torn piece of buffalo mozzarella or burrata, or blob of ricotta
- A halved cherry tomato, a paper-thin slice of lardo and ricotta
- A slice (or thick wedge) of mortadella and a pickled long, green pepper
- A slice of Asiago with a smear of mostarda (spicy, nose-tingling fruit compote – try chutney instead)
- Prosciutto cotto or ham with black olive pâté
- Marinated eggplants (aubergines) with mozzarella
- A slice of salame with giardiniera pickles
- Ricotta with semi-sundried tomatoes
- Grilled sausage on polenta
- Cheese, of any kind, but especially aged ones such as large chunks of parmesan, pecorino or provolone picante
This is an edited extract from Cinnamon & Salt by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $40. Available in stores nationally. Photography: ©Emiko Davies