There are many pleasures to be had down dark alleyways in Newtown, but few of them are legal. One exception has always been the narrow arcade off Riddiford Street, which has been home to a string of European restaurants over the decades, most notably (for those with long memories) The Swiss Chalet. It is into this dim defile that Cicio Cacio has brought some Mediterranean cheer.
The decor has changed little from previous incarnations, its rustic timbers suggesting a more alpine cuisine than the chef’s Roman origins would lead one to expect. The kitsch has been toned down slightly, without sacrificing Gemütlichkeit, for a convivial yet unfussy atmosphere. The menu itself has been stripped down to a single page each for food and wine. House wines are offered by the glass and carafe, and while I often find cheap Italian white wines one-dimensional and mean, the Sicilian Grillo was relatively friendly to New World palates and definitely friendly to the wallet.
To start, my companion chose tagliolini alla gricia, a mainstay of the Roman repertoire, which includes gunciale (cured pork jowl) and pecorino. This was surprisingly delicate for what’s essentially cheesy bacon pasta, but gunciale has its own unique flavour, and combined with the sharpness of the finely shaved pecorino it was light and piquant. My fettucine al ragù was not as subtle, but more than made up for it with deep flavours and a hearty texture of minced beef.
My meaty odyssey continued with salsicce fatte in casa de Emilio, and Emilio certainly makes fine sausages. The dish was exactly as described on the menu: two sausages, no more, no less, served sizzling on a hotplate. But they were substantial and bursting with juiciness, and at $15 represented good value. They won’t constitute a meal on their own, but since $9 gets you a hefty serving of silverbeet gratin and $5 a good portion of moreish roast potatoes, ordering sides won’t blow the budget.
But it was the fish of the day that was the star. A gigantic gurnard pouted disapprovingly yet alluringly from its metal platter, unadorned apart from a sprinkling of roughly chopped flat-leafed parsley. Its flesh parted easily from the bones, yet remained meaty and firm, with flavours redolent of the sea… as well as of the generous sloshes of wine, lemon juice and butter in which it was cooked. The balance was finely judged and irresistible: perfectly simple and simply perfect.
Inspired by the cheery hospitality of the staff, we found room for dessert. The tiramisu was a textbook rendition, if unspectacular. That sounds like faint praise, but even a mediocre tiramisu is still better than most things you get to put in your mouth every day. There was no way, however, that it could outshine the glorious pannacotta. It’s trite to describe a good pannacotta as ‘silky’, so perhaps the finest and most delicate silks should be described as ‘pannacottaish’. That luscious texture was cut by fresh orange slices, given crunchy contrast by jewel-like pistachios, and drenched in an unctuous sauce that was almost carnal in its earthy sweetness. The staff refused to give up their secrets, except to let on that it contained honey and spice as well as syrup. Like the restaurant itself, it managed to be simple yet indulgent.[warning]
Address: 167 Riddiford Street, Newtown
Phone: 04 380 1100
Cost: Entrées $11–17; mains $15–29.50
Open: Tue–Sun 5pm–11pm
Drink: Peroni $7; Grillo Lamura (house white) $6/glass, $24/500ml carafe[/warning]