I’ve never been to a restaurant nestled in a ski resort in the Italian Alps but Cicciotti’s in Cardiff sure feels like one. Well, until you consider it’s located in beautiful Cardiff with a world-class ocean view. The interior is warm and inviting with a stone bar and nice old school wood-burning oven. There is a nice enclosed deck out front that has the killer views. Based on this location, Cicciotti’s could probably get away with less than stellar food and service but to my surprise, both were quite good.
Let’s start with the wood-burning oven. First off, the aroma it produces is amazing and the visual is striking. Cicciotti’s burns avocado wood, which I had not heard of before but it worked wonderfully with the Pizza al Prosciutto with red sauce, mozzarella, arugula and prosciutto di parma. It’s a perfect example of how a wood-fired pizza should come out — thin crust, a little extra crispy, and topped with a nice mix of leafy arugula, cheese and razor thin prosciutto. Let me back up a bit as we did start with the antipasto Italiano, which consisted of fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, grilled vegetables, bruschetta, prosciutto and assorted unidentified cheeses. It was a perfectly acceptable way to start the meal and there was more than enough for two.
Next up was the risotto asapragi e granchio, which consisted of arborio rice sautéed with fresh chopped asparagus and crabmeat in a creamy brandy sauce. In my mind, the true mark of an Italian restaurant is how they pull off risotto as I’ve perfected the dish myself and have set the bar quite high. One can put just about any combination of anything in risotto and asparagus and crab seemed like a good mix to me. I was pleasantly surprised. Consistency is key with risotto and they nailed it. Creamy but not mushy with a hint of al dente in the rice. It was full of flavor and the asparagus offered a nice little crunch. So Mr. Cicciotti, nice work on the risotto.
For those of you not familiar with this wonderful dish, here is a nutshell version of what it’s all about. A high-starch round medium or short grain rice is usually used to make risotto. Such rices have the ability to absorb liquids and to release starch and so they are stickier than the long grain varieties. The principal varieties used in Italy are carnaroli, and vialone nano and to a lesser degree arborio which is the most common in the U.S.
There are many different risotto recipes with different ingredients, but they are all based on rice of an appropriate variety cooked in a standard procedure. They can be light and delicate and work nicely as a bed under a piece of fish. Or, as I like to do, filled with applewood smoked bacon, roasted corn and stuffed into half an artichoke then topped with cheese and finished in a broiler for a crispy top.
The rice is first cooked briefly in butter or olive oil to coat each grain in a film of fat, this is called tostatura; white wine is added and has to be absorbed by the grains. When evaporated, the heat is raised to medium high and very hot stock is gradually added in small amounts while stirring gently, almost constantly: stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid. Tasting helps to indicate when the risotto is ready and consistency can be debated so keep tasting through the process and remember it will continue to cook a bit after you turn off the flame.
At that point it is taken off the heat and diced cold butter and finely grated parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino, romano or similar cheese is vigorously stirred in to make the texture as creamy and smooth as possible. Properly cooked risotto is rich and creamy but still with some resistance or bite al dente and with separate grains.
OK, now that we all know what’s up with risotto, get to Ciccioti’s and get a taste of how it’s done right. Of course they have a full menu of other Italian staples, a nice wine list and selection of imported beers on tap. It’s a busy place so I’d suggest a reservation. Check them out at http://www.cicciottis.com.
Coast News Lick the Plate columnist David Boylan is celebrating 10 years and 500 columns with the Coast News in 2019! His feature covers the ever expanding North County culinary scene that includes restaurants, culinary personalities, trends, observations, tributes and his popular takeover column where area businesses, bands or teams contribute to the column. Lick the Plate has also been a popular radio show for the past eight years in San Diego on 100.7 KFMB, and on stations in Detroit, Michigan, Windsor Ontario and Traverse City, Michigan. Besides the column and radio show, David runs Tatonka Digital & Analog, a boutique marketing agency headquartered in Oceanside, California. Reach him with show suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lick-the-plate.com