Can a restaurant that served mediocre food four months ago offer splendid, tasty, fresh dishes just by changing its menu?
As my Pennsylvania Dutch friends say, “You bet.”
In October, Cousin Carl and I dined at the bar at Divino. We found the food lacking in flavor and originality. We chatted with the owner, Venetian-born Andrea Luca Rossi, who told us he was going to refurbish the place and offer “cicchetti,” Italian for “little plates,” along with carpaccio, entrees and pasta.
Since Carl is in Florida and Edward, the invalid, is housebound, I asked my friend and computer consultant Kevin to join me.
A block from Rittenhouse Square, Cichetteria 19 will draw anyone who appreciates fine, authentic, fresh Italian fare. Talented chef Shiah Blau is in charge of the kitchen.
The front room has a bar, television and several high-top tables. The back room is the dining area. The lighting was soft, but I could actually see the food on my plate. A banquette runs the length of one wall, while wooded tables are laid with cloth napkins and pretty glassware and china.
Happy hour was still in effect with a number of wines for $5 a glass. Kevin and I sipped a rich Chianti and discussed the menu.
The Italian little plates were one for $5, three for $12 or five for $19. The choices were dazzling. Just before our cicchetti arrived, our server brought us hot, homemade bread along with a small cruet of extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, a small dish of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and another with hot pepper flakes.
Small, wild, roasted shrimp arrived with tangy caper berries bathed in a light sauce of garlic and lemon juice. I only buy wild American shrimp because the farm-raised tastes like iodine. Good to see fine chefs use wild shrimp, as well.
Several slices of fresh fish prepared ceviche may speak of South America, but the glistening catch was served with shaved fennel and artichokes in a citrus reduction. The flavors were spot-on.
I’ve sampled arancini at a few restaurants. The Sicilian rice ball we gobbled down here was stuffed with sweet sausage and sat next to a pool of pesto made with fragrant basil and spicy arugula. It was piping-hot and crisp outside, a little creamy inside.
We wanted a contrast with the meatballs. The dry-aged prime beef was juicy and full of flavor. A rich sauce made with spicy peppers and tomatoes was the perfect foil. A long, roasted red hot pepper was on the plate.
We finished with the eggplant rolletini. The eggplant was not a bit bitter and was served with rabiola, fresh cheese and a sun-dried tomato pesto.
The beef carpaccio ($11) was splendid. Razor-thin slices of the aforementioned beef were drizzled with a homemade caper aioli. A small nest of arugula was on the plate, dressed in a light vinaigrette with a hint of truffle essence and topped with shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The garlic flavor of the aioli enhanced the meat beautifully.
You may wonder, as I did, what a hamburger was doing on the menu at an Italian restaurant. The only thing I knew for certain was the one Kevin and I shared ($14) was the finest I’ve eaten in the city. It’s called “polpetta di hamburger.”
The same dry-aged beef in the meatball and carpaccio was fashioned into a round about an inch-and-a-half thick. It was well-seasoned and seared medium-rare. A generous dollop of Gorgonzola dulce was spread on top. The latter was one fine choice.
We were told the homemade roll was made with pizza dough. It was crisp and hot from the oven. Hand-cut fries were laced with roasted leeks and finished with truffle essence. They were a little limp, but we enjoyed the flavor.
The prices are moderate considering the establishment is steps from Rittenhouse Square. I’ve placed it at the top of my list.
Three tips of the toque to Cichetteria 19.
267 S. 19th St.