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Pan-roasted hake with rapini and hazelnut romesco

Small Wonders

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | April 2, 2014

Michael Sheerin’s résumé includes Chicago’s beloved fine dining spot Blackbird; one of the country’s most progressive restaurants, wd~50 in New York; and, most recently, Trenchermen, the restaurant he and his brother opened in Bucktown. So his recent move to become executive chef at Italian spot Cicchetti left more than a few diners and culinary sideliners shaking their heads.

But it made sense to Sheerin. “Italian food is something I thought I would do at some point,” he says simply, “to see what all the fuss is about.”

The lack of an elaborate, romantic backstory to Sheerin’s entry into the Venetian style spot, named after the Italian region’s style of small-plates dining, doesn’t take away from the fact that Cicchetti is one of Chicago’s most exciting new restaurants.

Sheerin is the first to admit any praise Cicchetti receives shouldn’t be reserved just for him. Rather, the 110-seat Streeterville restaurant requires a group effort, with big-name Sous Chefs Sarah Jordan (former pastry chef at Boka and GT Fish & Oyster) and Phil Rubino (Acadia, Moderno, L2O) in the kitchen too. “Sarah was looking to do savory, and Phil wanted to cook Italian again because that’s where his heart lies,” says Sheerin. “We all started collaborating on the menu, and that’s where we are today.” An equally important player is owner Dan Rosenthal, a restaurant industry vet behind Chicago’s Trattoria No. 10, Poag Mahone’s and Sopraffina Marketcaffes, one of which shares space with Cicchetti.

While Sheerin makes it sound simple, the dishes at Cicchetti—a dozen or so small plates, a handful of salads, housemade pastas, and entree-size meat and seafood plates—for the most part are much more than their humble menu descriptions indicate.

Take, for instance, the carpaccio. Here, Sheerin subs out traditional raw beef for hormone- and antibiotic-free hanger steak (as the city’s first newly constructed Green Seal-certified restaurant, Cicchetti’s environment-friendly slant also applies to all of its ingredients and nonfood products) that’s been aged in the refrigerator for two weeks before he tops it with dehydrated bits of cauliflower, which add texture, and dots of raisin-caper aioli. It’s a playful and delicious riff on a classic that still respects what made the dish great in the first place.

Sardine-phobes will want to give the cured and pickled version here another chance. The sweet and sour flavor of the meaty fish is complemented by a creamy horseradish sauce, while uberthin pumpernickel toasts add a nice crunch.

The briny flavors of the sea are front and center in the charred baby squid and polenta small plate. But Sheerin takes it even further with the addition of black garlic, mint, cilantro and chile. It’s a lovely, balanced dish I’d easily order again, even though its squid ink sauce means my pearly whites are anything but for a little while.

Even salads offer surprises here. Served warm, the small pieces of slow-roasted sunchokes and baby artichokes pack a lot of great flavor on their own and even more when dredged through the balsamic-caramel dressing with which they’re paired. And while the combination of La Quercia prosciutto with baby arugula, slow-cooked chunks of sweet potato and a pumpkin seed salsa verde isn’t one we’d think of, we’re glad Sheerin did.

With so many great dishes, deciding what to order isn’t easy at Cicchetti. Our suggestion? As you peruse the menu, get one of the Italian-inspired cocktails—the refreshing spritz with prosecco, aperol and bergamot orange, perhaps?—and the pork cracklins, a tangled mound of light and airy crunchy pork skin strips dusted with Parmesan and rosemary. One of my tablemates thought they’d make a great base for poutine (did you hear that, Sheerin?). We dare you to have just one.

But do try to control yourself since there is a lot of good eating yet to be had.

You’re definitely going to want Nonna’s meatballs. Starting with the “holy trinity” of meat (pork, beef and veal), the misshapen orbs—“Italian food’s got to be a little rustic, right?” says Sheerin—are served with a zippy tomato sauce that’s tricked out with pancetta and cinnamon. Good luck divvying up the chunk of Jordan’s ciabatta that comes with it to soak up all of that terrific sauce.

The four housemade pastas are worthy of your attention too, including ravioli stuffed full of tasty braised short rib. If you’re still hungry, you can’t go wrong with the pan-roasted hake, which veers toward Spain with a hazelnut romesco sauce.

But be warned: Skipping dessert isn’t an option here. There are doughnuts served with a creative version of affogato and housemade gelato (we’re partial to the tiramisu). But our favorite was Jordan’s whimsical take on cannoli with little pastry tubes filled with chocolate hazelnut ganache, pucks of sweet potato flan and a rich chocolate sorbet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise at Cicchetti is its location, adjacent to a hospital. Except for the occasional flashing lights of passing ambulances, once inside the beautiful minimalist space full of cast iron, marble and reclaimed wood, you’d never know its neighbor is Northwestern Memorial. We imagine the medical staff working nearby, and local residents, are quite pleased with the addition to their neighborhood—and we are too.

Rise and Shine
In addition to lunch, Cicchetti will offer weekend brunch starting on April 12. We’re most excited to try Sheerin’s Italian fried chicken: crispy-skinned chicken thighs paired with creamy polenta.

The Great Outdoors
Once warm weather hits Chicago, we plan on taking full advantage of it on Cicchetti’s sprawling patio, which will include plenty of botanical displays and seats for 125 diners.

Lemon Head
Those five beautiful yellow-tinged glass containers in the bar aren’t just for show. Inside is Cicchetti’s housemade limoncello offered gratis to customers after dinner.

Cicchetti
671 N. St. Clair St., 312.642.1800

Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and dinner nightly

Small plates, $7-$15
Pastas, $14-$18
Entrees, $20-$28