Should we let the weather dictate what we eat, or should we let food influence our mood?
Surely if you head towards a good Italian restaurant, order a long cool aperitivo along with sharing platters and ripe, grilled seasonal vegetables, you can create the illusion of an Italian summer, no matter whether it’s sunny or rainy outside.
While the rain lashed against the windows of San Carlo Cicchetti this week, thanks to the excellent food and wine, we were utterly transported to the sunnier climes of Florence, Cortina, Venice and Abruzzo. The award winning restaurant’s new summer dishes reflect Cicchetti’s food philosophy of selecting and importing the finest native seasonal ingredients and allowing them to shine.
San Carlo Group’s Executive Development Chef Filippo Pagani, a native of the mountains of Cortina, has developed these new dishes to reflect very local, regional Italian flavours and this was most apparent in a seemingly simple starter of burrata with Datterini tomatoes (£7.95). This classic mozzarella cheese and tomato salad combo is well tried and tested but, thanks to the high quality of ingredients, Cicchetti’s summer version has much more intensity.
Their Puglian burrata is so soft and creamy it almost defies gravity by not breaking free from its delicate outer shell and oozing all over the plate. Datterini tomatoes in season are utterly special; small and slightly elongated, these ripe, sweet tomatoes are grown in sunshine and picked when they reach their optimum flavour, before being shipped directly to San Carlo restaurants.
“For me, the best cooking combines great simplicity with great taste and for an Italian, eating seasonally is a way of life, it means you’re eating fresh ingredients at the height of their flavour,” said Filippo “in June and July, asparagus, peas, broad beans, peaches and lemons come into their own.”
But let’s not forget how masterfully the Italians do comfort food; risotto and rich pasta dishes are the edible equivalent of climbing back into a fresh warm bed. We tried two silky and comforting risottos which, although not officially on Cicchetti’s new menu, are likely to be offered as specials throughout the summer months; risottos ortica and mandorle are both quite different but equally satisfying. The former is based around the more unusual nettles; fresh, tender, soft green sprigs of late spring, which had been enhanced by onions and the addition of lots of cheese. Sicilian mandorle was dotted with prawns in the half shell and enriched with almonds, good seafood stock, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. If you see them, order them.
The Italians do vegetables very well – although to be fair, not much needs doing to them at the height of the summer season to bring out their best qualities. Many committed carnivores have happily tucked into satisfying spring and summer pasta dishes without a second thought as to whether they contain meat or not. Take the hearty strozapreti (a pasta shape which strangely translates as ‘priest-strangler’) from Florence, which utlilises the best of the season’s market offerings; asparagus, fennel, fresh peas, broad beans and mint and binds them in creamy, diet-busting mascarpone cheese (£7.90).
Equally rich was a luxurious bowl of calamarata con granchia (£7.95), a Venetian dish of short pasta tubes bound with intensely flavoured crab meat, fennel and a hint of chilli.
From Abruzzo, gorgeously tender lamb cutlets with rosemary and thyme, baked in hay to seal in their meaty juices (£8.95). There’s only so much ground you can make by eating these politely with a knife and fork, so we recommend you sit in a corner and pick them up with your hands. You might want to do the same with their new Tuscan pork ribs (£8.50).
Save room for dessert - it’s a little known fact that the chefs at San Carlo make all their own gelato, desserts and pastries.
Cicchetti is part of the award winning family owned San Carlo Group of Italian restaurants and is open 7 days a week including bank holidays.