Like one of its countless precious heritage sites, the cuisine of Italy is best left undisturbed. Source good ingredients and people who respect them and the rest will usually take care of itself.
Cicchetti Knightsbridge restaurant in London, from the family-run San Carlo group, knows this as well as anyone. But what its classic small plate menu purposefully lacks in theatre is more than made up for by opulent surroundings, an adventurous wine list and generous hospitality.
Why come here?
Eating options tend to deal in extremes in Knightsbridge, so it’s worth having a restaurant like Cicchetti up your sleeve. Tourists on modest budgets will at some point find themselves in need of nourishment here, while even reversely snobby Londonders can’t avoid the district’s world-leading attractions entirely.
Cicchetti sits on a side road directly opposite Harrods. In a sense, the two couldn’t be more different. One is an icon for excess and indulgence. Cicchetti, on the other hand, is named after the Venetian tradition of finding pleasure in small plates of simple, honest food and mindfully chosen wine. But that’s not to say these neighbours have nothing in common.
Cicchetti is a feast for the eyes and the stomach. The vibrant Art Deco interior envelopes you in glamour of a certain vintage, the way only Art Deco interiors can. Carved oak wall panelling, mirrored ceilings and geometric lighting fixtures impart the luxurious mood you’d expect to find in the first-class cabin of a mid-century ocean liner. In the main dining room, a striking Cubist mural injects fun, colour and a peripheral sense of movement.
All of this sounds like it comes from somewhere exclusive – a safe assumption for anything in Knightsbridge. But Cicchetti is relaxed and informal, with well-behaved families eating amicably next to tired shoppers and young couples on date night. The prices are refreshingly inclusive and that’s noticeable in the atmosphere.
The food and drinks
I’ve usually ordered a negroni before being seated, but Cicchetti’s bespoke cocktail menu made me reconsider. A balmy May evening led me to an icy balloon glass of fragrant tonic and soda infused with Italicus, finished with green olives. It was as bracing as a midnight plunge into the Mediterranean.
Most Londoners are fluent in the language of small plate menus by now. Cicchetti’s reads like a who’s who of Italian cuisine, including its most iconic export, pizza. The margherita here would give London’s many artisans a run for their money: it’s pillowy and crisp in all the right areas, and finds the blissful ratio of milky, just-melted cheese to sun-sweetened tomato. These people know their way around an 800°F degree oven.
The olive tapenade and caprese salad were high points from the smallest of the small dishes, although I tasted too much celery in the Insalata di Granchio. It’s a surprisingly powerful flavour when mingling with something as subtle as crab.
Aquatic ingredients are a particular strength of Cicchetti’s. The spaghetti frutti di mare was bursting with the briney sweetness of big, meaty prawns and mussels, making it a crime to leave the plate anything but clean. Without pasta, a grilled seafood platter of sea bass, langoustine and a plump on-shell scallop revealed how serious Cicchetti takes freshness. My one regret was not ordering the sea bass with clams earlier. By the time it arrived I was five plates in and nearing capacity, but I could still tell it was a thing of salty, buttery beauty.
The wine and dessert
That was in no small part down to the wine that accompanied it, which came from one of the most impressive lists I’ve seen in a mid-priced restaurant. There are more than 50 wines from every corner of Italy, starting at around £35. Mine was a svelte 2022 Pinot Grigio from Valdadige, whose soft notes of melon and citrus drank in perfect harmony with seafood.
Lacking the decisiveness to settle on a dessert, I shared a plate of mini confections that included well-made cannolis, cream-filled choux pastries and an indulgent chocolate gateaux. A stiff glass of Marsala, followed by an obligatory Limoncello from the top shelf, capped off an evening I didn’t want to end.
Replicating the legendary simplicity of Italian eating culture outside of Italy isn’t easy. Some would say it simply isn’t possible. Cicchetti doesn’t try too hard. With clear knowledge and passion, it takes the one thing it can replicate, the food, and puts it in a very London setting. That makes it delicious, relaxed, honest and just the right amount of swanky.
Dominic Kocur was a guest of Cicchetti Knightsbridge. 6 Hans Road, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1RX; sancarlo.co.uk