This Center City Italian Eatery Introduces Philadelphia to the Small Plates of Venice
Small plate dining is increasingly popular, and Cichetteria 19 presents it in the form of traditional Venetian bar snacks known as “cichetti.” Review of this Rittenhouse Square-area Italian restaurant.
Small plates or “tapas” menus are all the rage these days, and Cichetteria 19 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is an Italian bar and restaurant capitalizing on this trend. Opened in February 2010, Cichetteria 19 promised to be the first restaurant in the Philadelphia area specializing in Venetian cuisine, specifically the traditional bar snacks known as “cichetti” popular in the legendary city in Italy. Cichetteria 19 also offers larger plates and pizzas, as well as a full bar specializing in Italian cocktails and wine. Local, fresh ingredients are emphasized on their menu, which changes seasonally. Cichetteria 19 has quickly become one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Philadelphia and succeeds best when it sticks to the traditions of Venetian cooking as it promises.
Cichetteria 19 is located in an attractive space just south of Rittenhouse Square in Center City, which has previously housed several other Italian restaurants with limited success. The front half of the room consists of a spacious bar and several high-seat tables facing large windows looking out over 19th Street. Past the bar is a more traditional style dining room, which has a warm, rustic flavor with its dark wooden tables and benches. The wine list of course emphasizes Italian grapes and prices start in the low-30s for some modest, very drinkable white wines. Many options are available both by the bottle and the glass. Classic Venetian cocktails such as the Bellini and my favorite, the Spritz, can also be enjoyed here.
The dining menu at Cichtteria 19 is divided into several sections. Most interesting is the Cichetti Veneziani, which is priced attractively at 1 plate for $5, three plates for $12, or five plates for $19. These are smaller than typical appetizers, typically no more than several bites, but a great way to try numerous different flavors. I recommend the five-for-$19 option, especially for two diners to start their meal. Some of the options available include classic Prosciutto and Melon or Fried Calamari. More interesting and highly enjoyed on a recent visit was the Roasted Shrimp with Caper Berries, Mayer Lemon and Roasted Garlic, which featured two large, perfectly cooked shrimp rich with flavor from the lemon and garlic. The daily Carpaccio is typically excellent, as is the Seasonal Fish Crudo, and the Aged Prime Meatball in Spicy Tomato Sauce. I was disappointed on a recent visit that the Baccala (cured salt cod) with Soft Black Polenta was not available, as that had been one of my favorites on my first visit. Instead, a petite was delightfully salty and tasty, like the richest egg toast I’ve ever enjoyed.
Also offered at Cichetteria 19 are more standard appetizer plates, such as a daily Farmer Salad ($12) and Soup ($8), recently a Gazpacho of Watermelon and Tomato. Cheese and Charcuterie plates are also offered at $12 each. Pizza is popular at Cichetteria 19, and I intended to try their version recently but their pizza oven was down for repairs. This was unfortunate as it was my visit to Venice in 2007 that made me fall in love with authentic, “true” Italian pizzas, with their light thin crusts and quality ingredients. Some other time I must return to try one of Cichetteria 19’s pizza offerings, which include the “Bassano” with Gorgonzola, Fig, Prosciutto and Arugula ($15) and a Funghi & Tartufo with Portabello Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Truffle Oil ($15).
Entrees can range in price from $14 for Cichetteria 19’s take on a classic hamburger to $30 for a Salt-Baked Branzino. The branzino is truly excellent and worth trying for a different take on this now highly-popular Italian dish. While most other restaurants pan-fry or saute the fish, Cichetteria 19 presents it in a uniquely Venetian style. The branzino is fully encased in a thick shell of sea salt and baked. The crust is “cracked” tableside and carefully removed before plating. Amazingly, the fish does not come out salty but incredibly sweet and moist. Always ask what the Risotto ($18) and Pasta ($17) of the day are. On one visit, I enjoyed an amazing pasta with fresh wild mushrooms, hearty and deep with earthy, rich flavors.
On my quest to sample all of the hamburgers in Philadelphia making a claim for the best burger in the city, I had to try the Cichetteria 19’s “Il Polpettone.” It features Roasted Leeks, Mushrooms, Melted Gorgonzola Cheese and Truffle Fries. The burger was massive and served, interestingly enough, not on a bun but thick cut fresh egg bread. Not easy to grasp in the hands, I enjoyed it with knife and fork instead. I cannot say I tasted the truffle in the fries, however, and despite the fancy presentation I rather craved for some ketchup to sweeten and moisten the burger and fries, just a little bit. The Hanger Steak ($22) was similarly served with fries and a heavy sauce of Cippoline Onions and an Onion-Mustard Aioli. Both meat dishes were tasty, but did not feel very Venetian to me and in the future I would stick with more authentic offerings.
For dessert, one should indulge in the Fonduta di Cioccolato if available ($7). This delightful fondue features decadent melted chocolate and various dippers, such as pound cake, strawberries, apples and marshmallows. It is wonderful when enjoyed with a terrific espresso or Italian digestif such as grappa.
Service at Cichetteria 19 is typically warm and friendly, and you will likely be visited by executive chef Andrea Luca Rossi to make sure your meal is satisfactory and to talk about Venetian traditions and culture. One note is I might be cautious about visiting on a Sunday, as it seems many dishes on the menu may not be available that day. Brunch is offered on Saturdays and Sundays, and the restaurant may begin serving a limited lunch menu in the future. Wine tasting events are held monthly on Tuesday evenings, where three wines can be tasted along with three cichetti for $19.
Overall I highly recommend Cichetteria 19 to those in Philadelphia looking for an Italian dining experience different from any others offered in the city. The best dishes stay true to their Venetian roots and are complemented strongly by the restaurant’s commitment to local, seasonal ingredients. A full meal of multiple courses and drinks can get expensive – cichetti, entrees, dessert, wine and after-dinner drinks can easily run up a $150 bill for two. However, for lighter faire such as pizza and cichetti at the bar, the price can be much more reasonable.
This review was originally published at Yahoo! Voices on September 14, 2010.