Cichetteria 19

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Oct. 12, 2010

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Have a ball: A trio of arancini (fried risotto) was a positive on the Paul Abdul-esque "two steps forward, two steps back" menu of Cicheterria 19.

Photo by Michael Persico

It’s gutsy to serve an all- (or mostly) white plate of food. The rewards are great if the bland color belies something deeper, but the symbolic risks are significant too. At Cichetteria 19, a recent near-colorless sauteed baby squid with a side of snowy polenta had all the range of color as John and Yoko’s living room and, disappointingly, about as much flavor as the color scheme implied.

Chef-owner Andrea Rossi said in a follow-up interview that his Friulian polenta is typically done with squid ink, but this version lost me. The watery cephalopod was, sadly, the highlight of the preparation, with the “seared citrus” polenta possessing little character beyond its soupy, cream-of-wheat texture.

That lack of seasoning and interest was a problem in too many dishes for comfort. It’s unfortunate, because the 19th Street space—formerly the short-lived Di Vino—has a lot going for it otherwise: A reasonably priced, glass-pour-friendly wine list studded with interesting, approachable wine; a casual-swank neighborhood vibe; and a menu that should appeal to a wide swath of potential guests.

The conception and execution of many of the menu’s constituent dishes, however, seem to be a real issue. The bland squid were one of two weak legs in a trio of small plates (the cichetti from which the restaurant takes its name) at the beginning of a recent meal, the other being an inexplicably dull, frustratingly underseasoned broccoli rabe. It was advertised as coming with roasted cannellini beans; instead, there was a sad scattering of garbanzos no more flavorful than anything I’ve tasted from a can.

Meatballs were the lone small-plate highlight. Densely packed yet still somehow delicate, hearty with an irresistible underlying tug of meatiness, and served in a simple, confident tomato sauce, these showed a glimmer of what the kitchen here is capable of. They’re formed from 21-day-aged, 90/10 grass-fed sirloin, and the quality of the meat is both readily apparent and given enough respect to shine through.

And that was the nature of the experience at Cichetteria 19: A Paula Abdul-esque two-steps-forward, two-steps-back seesaw of successes and disappointments.

A trio of arancini generally worked. The fried-risotto balls were prepared with a deft hand, the nutty crust protecting a cushiony center of carnaroli, the seasoning of that rice spot-on. Basil pesto was memorable, the bright flash of green a wakeup call to the taste buds. The saffron one could have used a lighter hand with its marquee spice, but worked by virtue of its exuberance. The truffle arancini, though it leaned more heavily on Lancaster-sourced shiitake, oyster and champignon mushrooms than it did truffle oil, provided an appealingly earthy, loamy bass to the pesto’s alto.

Other dishes, however, fell flat. Spaghetti with cockles in a white-wine sauce lost me at the first crunch of grit. The New Zealand cockles were gorgeous—tiny, delicate and well-cooked—but fatally undermined by both the insufficient cleaning they’d been given and occasional cloves of under-roasted garlic of the same approximate color and size. Indistinguishable from the cockles, they overwhelmed whatever unfortunate bite they’d been inadvertently fork-speared with. As for the watery sauce, it was utterly forgettable; white noise providing an insufficient background.

Pizza margherita was better, the tomato sauce pleasantly tangy, the buffala mozzarella lush and round. The crust, homemade and yeasty, would have been even better with just a few more minutes cooking time, but it was an easy success nonetheless.

That crust also formed the backbone of the Nutella pizza dessert, though here it was a touch undercooked. What stuck out, however, was the presence of white-centered, cotton-tasting strawberry wedges scattered on top. Rossi said that he occasionally uses bananas, but that guests generally prefer strawberries. Still, if the quality is as weak as this batch, it seems appropriate to offer the alternative until they improve.

Tiramisu offered delicious redemption, its more custard-like texture richer and far more sensual than it usually is, the espresso, marsala and cognac in beautiful harmony. Rossi is doing his mother’s recipe proud.

The problem here seems to be one of details, of the overarching, big-picture appeal of the menu getting lost in too many small-bore shortcomings that chip away at the overall experience.

Rossi’s heart is in the right place—he works with Fair Food to source many of his ingredients, and even the ones he cannot get locally are generally quite good (strawberries notwithstanding). But the kitchen needs to train its focus far more closely on the quality of every dish it sends out if it wants to stand out more among the glut of other solid Italian restaurants already well-established in Rittenhouse.

CICHETTERIA 19
267 South 19th St.
215.545.0441

Cuisine type: Venetian small plates and other Italian standards.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 4-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 4-11pm; late-night menu until 2am; Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10am-3pm.
Price range: $6-$28.
Atmosphere: Casual, sharp and appealing.
Food: Standards that would generally be a lot better with more attention to detail.
Service: Helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough about the menu to make for a pleasant experience in the dining room.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. matt said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 08:15AM

“This place is a disaster. Chef/Owner Andrea's food is weak, his actions are shady and his overall business practices are shameful. Also, our server couldn't answer a single question about the menu. Instead, he summoned Andrea from the kitchen to answer the simplest menu questions. I'd rather go to Marathon next door.

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2. Ann said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 12:03PM

“This review is unfortunate. I've been to Cichetteria 19 many times as its right in my neighborhood. I really enjoy the food as well as the fact that Andrea will stop by our table and recommend wines. The pizza is my favorite in the city and the vegetarian sandwiches on his new lunch menu are delicious. I agree with Brian - the Tiramisu is some of the best I've had - its not overly sweet.”

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3. mazza3 said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 12:09PM

“"these showed a glimmer of what the kitchen here is capable of."

not to nitpick, but please show this to your editor. nice review though; fair and informative.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 02:45PM

“I happened upon C19, as it's affectionately called by locals and regular patrons, one year ago and have been smitten ever since! In a region of Italian restaurants and pizzerias galore, this place stands apart from the rest as authentic, tasty, friendly, and elegant. On any day/night, you can find a variety of offerings to suit more discriminating palates that finally gives a fresh take on bland, barfood and aps. For casual fare, their pizza and cichetti rule!! Where else can you get 3 distinctively original and delicious aps for $12 and not feel guilty that the ingredients aren't fresh or sustainable!!? And the wine selection is only further complimented by Proprietor Luca Rossi's knowledge and his love of sharing that with the patrons. This is an AMAZING value and venue amidst all the pretentious fare on the Square and I highly recommend trying a dish or two or three if you're in the area. Plus, their tiramisu rocks:)”

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5. Andrea Luca Rossi said... on Oct 13, 2010 at 04:40PM

“As the owner of C19, I would like to thank everyone for their comments both positive and less positive. We take each comment seriously and review them with our staff in order to improve upon our service and food. I personally don't agree that the food is bland. The food in Venice is very simple and with that the preparation speaks for itself by placing emphasis on the actual taste of the fish, meat or produce. Perhaps, during such a busy time as Restaurant Week, we may have made some mistakes as the demand was very high and our staff was new. I would love for you, Brian, to come back for another visit to taste out cichetti and daily menu. We have a great following of foodies that have enjoyed and are still enjoying our food. I assure you that we utilize local ingredients that are fresh and always traceable.
Again, we appreciate your feedback.
Sincerely,
Andrea Luca Rossi

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6. Arania said... on Oct 14, 2010 at 10:46AM

“WA WA WHAAA?

Brian reviewed this joint during restaurant week? The week when every kitchen is pushed past its limits because of the volume of customers? That is so unprofessional, I am stunned.”

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7. tamara said... on Oct 14, 2010 at 04:11PM

“Cichetteria 19 is one of Philadelphia's finest and most unique restaurants of the moment! It is a very special place... defiantly one of its kind. I've been coming here for months and each time thoroughly enjoy myself, leaving full, happy, and satisfied. I'm shocked to learn that the review had such a negative connotation. If Brian didn't like a couple things that is fine but from personal experience I just cannot agree. The food is fresh, healthy, seasoned to perfection... take the opportunity to visit and you will see for yourself!”

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8. Anonymous said... on Oct 29, 2010 at 01:50PM

“With only one visit in mind, Brian Freedman chose to bash this spot during Restaurant Week. The guy has the right to do what he did, but in the real world of real professionals, a professional critic would understand that Restaurant Week is hardly the time to bash a restaurant. The paper itself should wake-up and apologize. To criticize a business during the insanity of this promotion is in my mind, unfair and inexcusable.

I might add that it's equally inexcusable to publish a newspaper that remains in business by publishing pornography. That's the subject for another day, but it does help me understand the lack of class and professionalism with the aforementioned restaurant review.”

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9. Kate Kristensen said... on Nov 1, 2010 at 10:37AM

“Anyone else think Matt's comment #1 A. should have been pulled by the editors and B. is strongly suggestive of being posted by the competition?

Nothing like making accusatory comments without any facts to back them up.

So Matt, Dude! “Your a disaster. Your writing is weak, your actions are shady and your overall business practices are shameful. Also, you couldn't answer a single question about the accusations. Instead, you summoned an idiot from your brain to answer the simplest questions. You should have gone to Marathon next door.

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10. Anonymous said... on Nov 2, 2010 at 12:22PM

“I think I saw Brians photo in the back of the PA weekly in the tranny ads.”

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11. John DeSimone said... on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:32PM

“I for one am counting the days until I can visit C19! Knowing of Andreas attention to detail and knowledge of Ventetian cuisine, I can only imagine the meal awaiting us!

As for the response/review by "Matt" in this column, anyone can clearly see these are the words of slander by a competitor or the like. The comments actually make me not want to visit the other restaurant Marathon which was mentioned.”

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