Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cicchetti: small but acceptably formed

Since Frank's arrival I have come to understand the wonders of small things. This bodes well for Cicchetti, which is not small, but serves little dishes.

Outpourings of wonder have accompanied a rash of recent openings (mainly in London, but also, briefly by the looks of it, in Plymouth) in the style of the Venetian bacaro. They serve small sharing plates, Italian tapas if you will, and Manchester's very own version is owned and run by the recession-bucking, celeb-wooing, slightly swaggering Italian chain, San Carlo. It's in House of Fraser, near the handbags.
As Cicchetti's man in charge recently told Matt White and his Gourmet Night on BBC Radio Manchester (on which I will appear on Thursday, discussing cookbooks), they've spent a fortune on it. Presumably deliberately, the grey-and-white marble and long bar gives it an air of old-fashioned, Seventies-style sexiness, and the coffee machine looks like a motorbike. And the other identifying mark? It's packed, pretty much all the time.
A friend had predicted (though not to my face, the scoundrel) that I wouldn't like it, citing terrible service. The floor staff are fine, if a bit dazed looking; the managers are filthy rude. But when the thrill of having someone's back turned to you pales, there's an unwieldy but possibility-laden menu to read. Some dishes come from the deli-style display of meats, salads and bits and pieces at the front, there's bruschetta, meat, pasta and gnocchi to contend with, and there's a bit of gueridon theatre in the form of steak or tuna tartare prepared at the table.
It wasn't a great show - the waiter doing the steak-seasoning was a beginner, being instructed by a distracted senior person, neither of them keen to engage - but it involved my lovely cheffy friend Deanna Thomas's favourite bit of lunch, a smoky-hot tomato sauce made with the spicy sausage nduja. The deep-fried squid could have been crisper and the slow-cooked short ribs considerably less sweet, but I will brook no argument about the magnificence of gnocchi, even very average gnocchi, served double-cheesy with a gorgonzola sauce and in a Parmesan basket (what did I say about the Seventies?). Marinated vegetables, including some very good grilled aubergine slices, weren't bad either. At £15 a head (no booze, just fizzy water), it was an acceptable, accessible - by which I mean cheapish - lunch.
Nevertheless, my friend was right. Despite the buzz and the extreme cheese, I didn't like it very much. Unless you are a person known to the establishment, you are likely to feel as welcome in Cicchetti as a passenger does on a bus. They're not really that bothered whether you're on board or not, because they'd be doing the route anyway. What's the Italian for 'small shrug'?