Italian food is the gold standard of dining out. In these days of deliberately wacky food ‘concepts’, where you might be expected to quaff your drink from a water pistol or blindfold your partner before dinner is served, Italian cuisine is a reassuring defence of traditionalism. When your culinary anthology is as immortal and star-studded as the Italians – talismanic carbs, cheeses with more personality than actual people, a pronounced faith in fresh herbs – there’s no need to indulge in margin-raising nonsense. This is food that doesn’t need ironic gimmicks.
Cicchetti is an ideal sanctuary for such traditionalism. After the runaway success of their first London restaurant in Piccadilly, Cicchetti’s new Covent Garden location is built on the same principles. The setting is reminiscent of first-class in Titanic, gold and marble and blue leather. Your fellow diners are mostly composed of distinguished Italians who look like they’ve just arrived from La Scala. Most importantly, the quality of the food rarely drops below excellent.
The menu is surprisingly diverse. There’s all your carnes and primo piattis, every antipasti you’d expect, a whole phalanx of pasta dishes and a glittering assembly of specials. Any suspicion that Cicchetti is over-stretching itself is batted away by each heavy hitter on our table.
Sharing plates are emphasised. The best of these is the black risotto with n’duja sausage. The red of the sausage fat and the black of the squid ink form a swirling melange of complex, fiery flavours. An intriguing smokiness brings the arborio rice to life, having absorbed all of the n’duja’s charisma. It warms the body. Sharing this risotto is surprisingly difficult.
Crab ravioli doesn’t reach the same heights. The pasta itself is fine, but the crab feels uncomfortable within it – too rubbery, too stressed out. Fennel provides a helpful contrasting sweetness, but it’s just not tender enough. Salsiccia sausage, served atop a huddle of barlotti beans that look like they’ve just collapsed after a pleasurable pillow fight, is better. The sausage, a fire-engine red reminiscent of a German Frankfurter, is less complex than the n’duja, possibly because it’s less fatty. But the barlotti beans are so tender and sweet, it’s difficult not to be charmed. They provide the perfect companion to the saltiness of the salsiccia. The antipasti preceding these mains are good without impressing; the focaccia is without fault, carpaccio is as good as you’d hope, but burrata di mozzarella is a touch too tough on the outside. Obikà, a mozzarella bar with branches on Charlotte Street and in Soho, does it better.
We order a sharing platter of four different taster desserts. Mostly they’re spongy, grainy cakes in the style of tiramisu, so we order a Cannoli Siciliano – a kind of pastry-tube filled with lemon-flavoured ricotta – for variety. Every morsel speaks of freshness. On matters of sweetness, each cake had something different to say. All of the desserts, nonetheless, share a sense of unity, a sense of poise and balance cultivated by Cicchetti throughout the menu. And with most dishes priced around the £10 mark, it’s not as inaccessible as it might sound. If being served pop tarts by remote-control helicopters in Shoreditch has left you pining for some traditional Italian mastery, Cicchetti is the place to go.
30 Wellington Street
Tel: 020 7240 6339