Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Charlotte isn't known for subtlety.
We like our athletes dabbing, our nightlife 808ing, and our restaurants almost insultingly obvious in their presentation.
But the restaurants that stick in the collective memory of this city aren't the ones with string lights and gimmicky neon signs. Our former namesake The Penguin Drive-In let it's quirk shine through its menu, flavors, and people, defining Charlotte's food scene as it also sought to make it deeper and smarter. You could taste the quirk. You could feel it and see it and smell it, because The Penguin lived it.
That's what great restaurants do. They don't need to hang giant chili pepper prints to remind you're they're Mexican-inspired. They don't need a glowing "NO BOYS ALLOWED" sign to let you know they're female focused.
Cicchetti is one of those great restaurants. Well-constructed, smart, and satisfying, Cicchetti is a statement piece for Uptown dining and instant gem of the city.
I wasn't planning on going to Cicchetti on that cool night in late October. I'd just wrapped launching this website (yes, the one you're reading right now) and my neck was hurting from staring at my phone to tinker with Twitter bios and Facebook cover photos. The sky was two distinct shades of pink and blue, like something out of a Mitski song, and I was feeling high strung.
What better way to unwind than the new wine bar a few blocks away on Tryon?
Cicchetti (pronounced chee-keh-tee) is an Italian term for "small snacks," kind of like tapas. I say that so you know that Cicchetti isn't quite a wine bar. It's more multi-talented than that.
The first sense you'll get when you walk in is the smell of bread so warm, you can almost feel it on your cheeks. I seriously can't wait until it gets really cold outside, because walking into Cicchetti is going to feel clutch.
The light is soft, if a little too bright, and the lighting fixtures themselves are somewhat uninspired. You usually get smacked in the face with freelance interior designer concepts when you walk into a new Charlotte restaurant, so even though the blandness of the decor is worth critiquing, it's also a reminder that when you're really good at running a restaurant, you don't always have to think about what the hippest table finish is.
And everything from that point proves Cicchetti is really good at running a restaurant.
We sat at a high-top facing a tall window opening to the Epicentre's video board. From my seat, Charlotte looked almost like New York or Boston.
The server Ariel was delightful, smart, and funny. I didn't have any earthly idea what any of the dishes on the menu were. This is real peasant Italian stuff. We took her recommendation on the polpo (baby octopus), crab meatballs, and polenta fries.
While you wait for your food (my wait was six minutes), you can browse the gigantic wine shop in the restaurant. With all the hype of the approachability of The Bohemian, Cicchetti's wine shop is actually less expensive. We found bottles as low as $15. (Note, there's a $10 corking fee to drink at the table, but you're welcome to buy the bottle and take it home).
The food kicks ass.
The crab meatballs focuses on texture and the natural flavors of the crab. The sauce is tangy and sweet, like sriracha mixed with Fruit Loops.
The polenta fries are cooked with care and master-level timing. There's a soft crunch in your bite, light salt, and I want to bottle the aioli and bathe in it.
The polpo sits on a grits-like texture of polenta, with an understated white wine sauce. I've never had baby octopus before, and now I don't trust anyone other than Cicchetti to make it for me.
For dessert, we grabbed the zeppole, which is sort of like a Chinese donut, but Italian. It sits in a light bath of butter and cinnamon. The balance between the crispyness of the outside and the softness of the bread inside isn't perfect, but it's damn-near close.
The entire time this food is rolling out, my girlfriend and Ariel are exchanging stories about growing up in Italian households, and all the dishes their grandparents used to make them. I don't know anything about having an Italian grandmother, but something about Cicchetti made me feel like I was at home even though I'd never been there.
That feeling? That's the feeling of anniversary dinners, happy hours, first dates, friendly catch-ups, and all the other memories that turn a city into a home. Even though this spot is new, it already feels like it belongs.
Welcome home, Cicchetti.