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.
267 South 19th St.
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.