Stealing Snacks, Eating Eyeballs
Cicchetti Is Already More of a Party Than Serafina Will Ever Be
The chef's first job was in a pizzeria. He was a teenager, and he was constantly hungry, so he would load the edges of certain pizzas with excess cheese, which would then bubble over and drip down onto the floor of the oven. There it would get browned and crispy on the bottom, and then it would get harvested and eaten by the very hungry teenage chef.
The chef is Dylan Giordan, and the story is told by a waiter at Cicchetti, where "oven floor cheese" is on the menu. (Later, he talks about how the staff tried 20 kinds of Greek wine, finding two worthy of the wine list. The white from Crete is crisp and unremarkable, which, in a Greek wine, is a triumph.) Cicchetti is the new little sister of Serafina, a favorite for upmarket Italian for going on two decades; Giordan is the chef of both. When you walk into Cicchetti, you can see people dining inside Serafina across the courtyard. You get the strong sense that no one in there is telling strange stories of purloined snacks; all is sedate, as it is meant to be. On a Wednesday night, however, Cicchetti is loud and almost entirely full, and clearly already a favorite itself. It feels celebratory. It's been open only three weeks.
Cicchetti—pronounced chi-KET-tee, as printed helpfully on the menu—is the word for the version of tapas found in Venice. Rick Steves has a photo of the real deal online: people drinking wine while standing up at a completely average-looking bar that's loaded with platters of undoubtedly delicious and cheap snacks. (It's depressing—unless you're going to Venice soon, don't look at it.) This proper-noun Cicchetti is fancier, housed in the building that architect George Suyama designed for his firm; it's got a contemporary converted- barn feeling, airy but with funny angles and nooks. There's a bar with black-and-white photos of staff and friends, a few seats at a marble counter in front of the wood-burning oven ("Please don't feed the cook" reads a sign), a quieter separate room, and an upstairs loft with a shockingly expansive view of Queen Anne and the Space Needle. Halfway up the stairs: a row of jars of various pickled vegetables and a giant gilt-edged mirror. In the air: a very large fantasia of a blown-glass chandelier. (This chandelier was made by an Italian glass artist who reportedly stood in the space and allowed it to inspire him. It's unclear to me what about the interior conjures an oversize punch-bowl setup augmented with frilly fronds, dangling grapelet clusters, and daffodils, but then I'm not a glass artist.)
That oven floor cheese is pecorino, served with soft, pale triangles of bread; the cheese (for once) does the crusty work. It's plain—a case could be made for some color to go with it—but it's good, and it costs $6. Cicchetti's wood-fired oven is at the heart of its Mediterranean menu: Portuguese clams with spicy sausage ($11) are baked in there, and the catch of the day is smeared with Moroccan chermoula and roasted likewise. The fish prompted another anecdote from a server: She and her boyfriend ordered it recently, and he ate the eyeballs. No one's talking about eating eyeballs at Serafina. (Notably, so far, the storytelling servers are also keeping up with getting lots of plates out to lots of people; it's to the owner's credit that the place is sufficiently staffed and that everyone already seems to know what they're doing.) The fish one night was a three-pound snapper ($15.95) with blackened herb-coated skin and almost excessively tender flesh. The bites without skin were a bit melty-neutral, but all of it easily pulled off the bones. (Another night, sardines were being served, and it appeared that people were undertaking intensive bone-removal surgery.)
Also from the wood-fired oven: thin-crust pizza of the current rustic, misshapen style. Cicchetti's version has a slightly thicker crust, which is a little spongy, and a chanterelle and fontina pie ($13) was unstinting with the cheese, which made for a few gluey middle bites. Still, it's quite fine, and the margherita ($11) looked promising, too. A dish of roasted root vegetables ($6) was basic and satisfying (with the caramelized edges the best part, as always). Roasted pork sausage proved to be a single sausage, cut into three pieces in a small tripartite cast-iron pan. The sausage was country- style rough-ground, tasty, without too much fennel, but it seemed scant for $12. Note that the usual small-plates jeopardy is in full effect here: With a couple drinks and small plates and dessert, it's easy to spend $50 a person. And you won't necessarily be overpoweringly full.
But do not overlook the Venetian marinated mussels ($6), served chilled on the half shell with tiny bits of peppers and onion. The cold octopus and chickpea salad ($7) is nice, too, though you should ask for extra pickled onions on top—it needs the tart boost. The carrot salad ($4), simple, skinny strands of carrot, comes with extremely hot harissa jelly. The server warned that getting very much of it would burn your mouth off, but there was no way to avoid that: It sat in a large blob on top. If you're having to caution people about the food, an adjustment is probably in order.
Cicchetti's list of 48 cocktails is fully in the craft vogue; witness the house-made cardamom-and-mace tincture. For dessert, get the spherical ricotta fritters with huckleberry sauce ($7)—the sauce is inside, and it bleeds out thick and dark and has a little vinegary taste cutting the sweet factor. And if you think you hate coconut, the house-made gelato will change your mind.
You can leave your congratulations—or a note about who you think is hot, or a quote about drinking, or whatever you like—on the chalkboard in Cicchetti's downstairs bathroom.
This article has been updated: The oven floor cheese is pecorino, not fontina as originally stated.