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Cicchetti: Venetian Preemptive Appetizers, Ducca-Style
February 2009

Cicchetti are small little bites, “adorable” even, says Chef Richard Corbo of San Francisco’s Venetian-style Ducca. Balls of fried risotto—with a melty truffle cheese center, no less; polpettini translates to mini meatballs and Corbo’s are made of ground lamb and veal; and “who doesn’t like a little fried dough?” agnolotti with an apple-braised pork filling—these are three of Ducca’s staple cicchetti offerings.

The idea of and the actual cicchetti are simple, straightforward, and salty, as Corbo—a self-proclaimed “buff on Veneto cuisine”—explains, the region’s cuisine “was founded in salt—you have salt-cured sardines, anchovies…it’s a salt-driven cuisine. For cicchetti you want that salt component to wake up the taste buds.” Another bonus of the salty little snacks: they help up-sell those glasses of wine—especially in Ducca’s spacious bar and lounge.

In fact, Corbo’s polpettini and arancini hit the spot for many of his customers who stop in for a quick and inexpensive bite and drink, and for those who spill in from the 700-room hotel’s lobby. For the restaurant itself, Corbo calls the cicchetti a “preemptive appetizer”—versatile, pop-in-your-mouth food that won’t kill guests’ appetites and aren’t too pricey ($7 per order).

Corbo admits that his recipes aren’t 100% authentic—he’s allowed a little Southern Italian influence in there. The arancini are a signature item of the restaurant; they are so popular in fact that the chef can’t even think about taking them off the menu. He puts a nugget of Venetian truffle cheese, sottocenere, in the center of the risotto ball that melts when the little orbs are fried.

Corbo’s polpettini are inspired by his Italian-American upbringing where meatballs made a regular appearance on the family dinner table; at Ducca, he serves them with a bitter orange savory jam that complements the caramelized meat flavor.

The agnolotti fritti with salsa verde (fried stuffed pasta) are a little more time consuming in terms of prep, but the process itself is still simple. Corbo makes his pasta dough with Pernod, giving it an anise flavor, and the meat filling is pork cheeks braised with apples, white wine, and spices. The tender cheeks are then blended in a mixer until it’s almost “whipped” in consistency; the salsa verde that accompanies them is what Corbo describes as a “classic accompaniment to meat.”