Some of the trendiest new restaurants have menus favoring small plates. Casa B in Somerville, The Brahmin in Back Bay, even newly reopened Olives, give shared nibbles prominent spots on their menus.
With the popularity of these tapas-style dishes flourishing, it’s surprising that cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-ee) hasn’t entered the vernacular. While everyone knows about Spanish tapas, cicchetti are less universal. They are found in only one place: Venice.
“Cicchetti are little snacks that are available at the bars,” says Monica Cesarato, co-owner of Cook in Venice and Faronhof B&B, on the adjacent mainland. In different parts of Italy, the small snacks go by other names and spellings. Sometimes in Venice they are spelled cicheti; in other parts of the country, they are known as antipasti or stuzzichini. The South End restaurant Coppa calls them stuzzichini. These little snacks can add up. At Coppa, the range is $5 to $8; at La Morra in Brookline, $3.25 to $4.25. Typically diners use them as hors d’oeuvres with drinks, rather than instead of appetizers.
In Venice, Cesarato gives lessons on local cuisine and walking tours of the city’s wine bars, known as bacari, where cicchetti are served. “It’s a way to taste real traditional Venetian food,” says Cesarato. “It’s hard to get [authentic cicchetti] at a good restaurant in Venice because many were born to satisfy tourists and don’t serve real Venetian recipes.”
Josh Ziskin, chef and co-owner with his wife, Jennifer, of La Morra, says his favorite way to eat in Venice is “to hit all the cicchetti bars, just going from bar to bar.” He brought the idea home .
Cicchetti in Venice heavily favor seafood. Dishes such as whipped salt cod and fried anchovies or sardines are popular. Calamari, octopus, and varieties of shellfish are also available. Non-seafood options include meatballs, grilled polenta squares with cured meat or grilled vegetables, and braised artichoke bottoms. The dishes are always served in small portions on small plates, and are usually eaten with the fingers or toothpicks. Traditionally diners order a small glass of wine, called an ombra, which helps cut the snacks’ saltiness.
The Ziskins lived in Italy for six months, in a town (La Morra) in the Piedmont region. Josh cooked at a vineyard restaurant while Jennifer studied wine. There, Italians call their small snacks antipasti, but the Ziskins’ travels to Venice made a lasting impact.
The two most popular cicchetti at La Morra are meatballs, which feature porcini and prosciutto, and arancini (fried risotto croquettes with meat and cheese). Ziskin concedes that arancini are Sicilian, but says they are fun to have on the menu. He also serves pickled vegetables, using locally sourced produce, as part of the dozen or so cicchetti on his menu.
There is a difference between cicchetti now and in the past, Cesarato explains. Cicchetti were offered to men in bacari after work or at lunchtime. “The people who served the food noticed if they served salty finger food, the men would buy more wine,” says Cesarato. By the 1990s, social norms had changed and fewer locals were spending as much time at the bacari. Many closed. But a new generation of bacaro owners started offering different drinks, not just cheap wine like in the old days, and that, along with an improved quality in bar snacks, enlivened a waning tradition. Venetians began meeting after work to go from one bar to another to have a drink and a snack. Eventually tourists discovered what the locals were doing and started bacari hopping.
Cicchetti in Venice usually are cheap, a Euro or two apiece. Guests choose from a variety that sit on the counter or are displayed in a glass case. Often, they are not labeled. You simply tell the barperson what you want, or politely point if you are not fluent in Italian or the Venetian dialect.
One of the oldest dishes is sarde in saor (marinated sardines), a fisherman’s snack that dates to antiquity. “Fishermen were out on the boats and women had to tend the nets and didn’t have time to cook,” says Cesarato. One way they had to prepare fish was with vinegar and onions. Centuries ago, Arabs controlled the vast majority of the Mediterranean, engaging in trade all over the region. This influenced the local cuisine, including in Venice, and is evident in the modern-day version of marinated sardines, which features the added sweetness of raisins. In Venice, another version of this history exists. “During the Renaissance they started adding pine nuts and raisins because the flavors sweetened the breath to take away the fish and onion smell,” says Cesarato. Today, the sweet-and-sour snack is available at nearly all bacari.
Julia della Croce, author of “Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast,” writes: “The foods of the signori, the wealthy, were one thing. The dishes of the popolo, the people, were another . . . the fantastic cuisine of the signori is legendary, but only Venice’s poor dishes have lasted.” Among them is baccala mantecato (whipped salt cod), pate-like in texture and the most popular cicchetto in Venice. Like all salt cod dishes, the preparation is labor intensive. Salt cod is first soaked for one to two days to remove excess salt. Then it is boiled, flaked, and vigorously beaten with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Additions vary from place to place, but cream, garlic, and parsley are the most common. Variations are subtle rather than extreme. The salt cod is typically served on miniature slices of bread or over grilled polenta.
At il Casale in Belmont and Restaurant Dante in Cambridge, chef and owner Dante de Magistris calls the little plates “sfizi,” a term from Avellino, a town in southern Italy’s Campania region where his family is originally from.
He also serves arancini, the risotto balls (they are also common in southern Italy), and, as at La Morra, they are wildly popular at both of de Magistris’s establishments.
“If we took off any of the arancini from the menu,” he says, “I think there would be a riot.”