When I belatedly remembered Melanie's birthday was this week, I dropped her a line and asked if she was available for dinner, and if so, where she wanted to go. She sent me a list, with La Ciccia at the top. Great minds thinks alike -- it had been at the top of mine, too!
I called Tuesday asking for a Thursday reservation and expected them to laugh at me, but no, what time do you want to come, 7:30, great. Reservation in hand, Melanie and I recruited a couple more people for what turned out to be a fabulous evening.
When Jim Leff talks about what it means to be a "chowhound" he talks about people who have passion for what they do and integrity in the way they do it. La Ciccia is the most chowhoundy place I've been in ages. The owner's passion for the food shines in every dish, and every bite feels "true." Nothing is on the menu because it's trendy or might appeal to Michael Bauer.
The four of us managed -- with the help of our wonderful server whose enthusiasm made it hard to pass anything up -- to make the supreme sacrifice of ordering waaaaay too much food.
First, she enticed us with rapturous descriptions of rough-cut house-cured prosciutto. Who could have resisted that? It was fabulous -- very different from the sweet, tender proscuitto at Perbacco a couple of weeks ago, it was chewy (especially the thicker end bits) and salty around the edges. We also had a couple of other house-cured meats that were also excellent (better than Perbacco, I thought).
Grazing over our salumi and sipping a minerally (as described by our server) Vermentino, we debated what to have next. The debated was fueled by the fact that, sitting near the kitchen, we were inundated with fabulous smells as food came out -- at one point later in the evening, conversation came to a halt as all our noses came to attention. What was that? Finally, one of our party got up, followed the smell to the table it had ended up on, and asked what it was.
But with the help of our server, we settled on the Inzalaredda de mari (seafood salad). The seafood salad was not this hounds cup of tea, but the lemony dressing had me dipping my bread into it. She then coursed the four pastas we'd chosen -- the first pair of pastas were more seafood: a special of pasta in a cuttlefish ink sauce, and fresh spaghetti with cauliflower and bottarga. Fabulous pasta that I think really made me understand "al dente" for the first time. I preferred the milder bottarga to the brinier cuttlefish; both were a perfect combination of gutsy, rustic flavors and professional technique.
Our second pasta course was the gnochetti with pork meats sugo and the saffron fregula with artichokes (both with pecorino). I'd never had fregula before, and this was a delicious introduction. The gnocchetti, on the other hand, evoked a sense of recognition -- that "ah ha, that's what this kind of dish is supposed to taste like" sensation.
Although we hadn't planned to order pizza, the pizzas coming out of the kitchen looked and smelled too good to pass up -- what's one more thing when you're already pigging out, right? We finally settled on the pizza a sa Sarda, a simple pie of tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino, capers, oregano and olive oil. Simple though it was, it was one of the best I've ever had, with a perfect balance of thin crust, sauce and toppings and that classic combination of the sweet/tangy tomato, rich cheese and pungent oregano that really defines pizza for me.
Finally, the secondi. The dish we had chased across the dining room was the wild boar stew -- good thing, as we had already put it on the "must have" list. We asked our server for another recommendation, and she suggested the lamb chops. Melanie was a bit dubious -- what's so Sardinian about lamb chops? I pointed out that Sardinia really had a sheep-based agricultural system (witness all the famous Sardinian sheep's milk cheeses), and our server concurred, saying that lamb was at the heart of Sardinian cooking. Good thing she convinced us, because the thick, medium-rare chops were tender and delicious, and the fine herb sauce, athough it resembed the ubiquitous Genoa pesto, was actually a blend of herbs (oregano, rosemary, sage, etc.) that did indeed make it feel Sardinian. The wild boar stew was a "hunter style" with clove, juniper berries and other strong seasonings that were a bit too heavy for the end of this rich meal but delicious nonetheless.
By this time we'd gone through another bottle of Vermentino (a more full-bodied one, again well-chosen by our server when Melanie asked for one in a different style than the first) that went shockingly well with the herbal sauce on the lamb, and started in on a bottle of sangiovese. We'd also, with our leisurely ordering style and coursing, closed down the restaurant. Still, we couldn't resist dessert (besides, we needed a little time to ... ahem ... clear our heads). Since, again, we couldn't decide, we ordered two desserts and the cheese plate. The winner between the desserts was the ricotta and saffron cake served with candied fruits -- another strong recommendation from our server. Light, fluffy, and not very sweet, especially with the hint of bitterness from the jewel-like candied citrus, it was a perfect ending to the meal. The semifreddo was just okay, in comparison. Again, I might have liked it more if I hadn't been quite so stuffed, but at that point it took something exceptional to tantalize my tastebuds. The three Sardinian cheeses (two sheeps and a goat) were all excellent. One of the sheeps had a nice bite of red pepper, and one of the others (the other sheep?) had an interesting lemony note (much easier to appreciate when I had the leftovers for lunch the next day).
So the food was very good -- some of it exceptionally good -- but what really made this chowhoundy was the people. Our wonderful server; the chef who stopped by our table a couple of times and then had a long chat with us as we were leaving, even though it was by then almost an hour and a half past closing; the charming hostess (owner? chef's wife?); even the busser. It all felt warm and personal -- the perfect neighborhood restaurant that happens to have great food.
For two salumi plates, one appetizer, four primi-sized pastas, a pizza, two secundi, three desserts, two bottles of wine (we brought the sangiovese -- I don't think they charged us corkage but I wouldn't swear to it) and three bottles of mineral water the tab came to $260 after tax but before tip. The consensus seemed to be that it was an excellent value for the quality of the food and the experience.
Curtis took pictures, which I'm sure he'll post soon.