When I heard that a new Italian restaurant was opening on the campus of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and, specifically, in one of the Hospital’s buildings, I was a bit skeptical about going out for a nice dinner in the same building in which I also visit my doctors. While Cicchetti is located just across the street from Tru, which has been quite successful for years, the location directly within the Hospital could possibly turn some people away. However, given the decor and the quality of the food, Cicchetti should not have a problem with its own vitality.
The design and color scheme is reminiscent of Balena, another Italian restaurant located in Lincoln Park, and is the first newly constructed Green Seal restaurant in the city, featuring reclaimed wood from upper Wisconsin. The look is clean, with white walls and dark exposed wood beams on the ceilings. An open kitchen overlooks the main dining room. A separate bar at the entrance welcomes overflow diners and those looking for a lite bite from the bar menu, or a creative Italian-inspired cocktail.
The menu, created by Chef Michael Sheerin of Trencherman, Blackbird, and WD-50 fame, is Venetian-inspired and dishes are meant to be shared. After all, Cicchetti is Italian for “small plate.” Therefore, my three fellow diners and I tried to cover a good amount of the menu.
From the Antipasti & Cicchetti portion of the menu, the charred baby squid and roasted mushroom pizza were my favorites. The squid, mixed with squid ink and black garlic, was served atop a mound of fantastic creamy polenta. The saltiness from the squid ink balanced perfectly against the creaminess of the polenta. The mushroom pizza, handmade and more reminiscent of a flatbread, featured fontina mornay cheese, scallions, and chili-garlic oil which gave it a nice kick. I could easily pair this pizza with a nice glass of Chianti Classico and call it dinner.
Nonna’s meatballs, served smothered with pancetta tomato sauce and freshly baked ciabatta to soak up all of the remnants, were also a huge hit. However, while the slow roasted sunchokes and baby artichokes, dressed in balsamic and topped with peashoots, were good, they lacked any real standout qualities. Next time, I would instead go with the shaved root vegetable or anjou pear salad.
Of the pastas, the favorite was the braised short rib ravioli with housemade tomato sauce. The gnocchi, on the other hand, served with braised pork shank, celery root, pear, buttermilk, dill, and chestnut crisps, simply did not work. The flavor combination was off and the elements did not blend in any way, making it our least favorite dish of the night. Vegetarians should note, as well, that no meat-free pastas are offered – only a saffron risotto with melted leeks and fried farm egg – something the restaurant should rectify.
My absolute favorite dish of the evening was the Venetian seafood stew, a cast iron skillet filled to the brim with Madagascar prawns, lobster, mussels, and octopus, all swimming beautifully in a piquillo pepper tomato sauce, with Italian cous cous and puffed wild rice with fresh herbs. More ciabatta bread was served alongside to sop up the delicious tomato sauce that had hints of cinnamon and chili spices. The puffed wild rice was unnecessary and distracted from the wonderful flavors of this dish, but I swept them to the side and dug right in to the perfectly cooked seafood.
After this Venetian feast, we were too full for any heavy desserts, so instead we ordered a trio of gelatos. My favorites were the pistachio and tiramisu. The shortbread cookies with which they were served were perfectly buttery and delicious.
Cicchetti ferments its own limoncello and serves it gratis to each diner at the end of the meal. While not quite as good as the best limoncello I have had in Cinque Terre, Italy, it was tart and a terrific way to end a wonderful meal.
671 North St. Clair, Chicago, IL 60611