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A local spin on Italian food at Caffe Cicheti
#B-21 South Beach Tower 26 Beach Road Singapore 189768
Tel: 6384 1878
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Saturday: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10pm (Brunch on Sat till 3pm). All day brunch only on Sun: 10.30am to 4.30pm. Closed on Mon.
JUST as there is more than one way to skin a (insert politically correct, species-neutral term that will not invoke wrath of sensitive pet owners, rightful idioms be damned) cushion - there are also many ways to make that old Italian standby, spaghetti vongole.
You can push the boundaries with tomatoes, a spot of cream, chilli, vodka or whatever.
But what's harder to come by is a plate of slippery pasta shimmering in a slinky coat of wine, clam juice and pasta water, that you can slurp up with cheerful clams that have no trace of grit or rubberiness that can stretch from your fork to the next table.
The vongole conundrum comes to mind as we study the version served at Caffe Cicheti - the casual sibling of Cicheti and Bar Cicheti whose acquaintance we have yet to make so we have no yardstick for comparison.
But we do see some sparks of potential in this plate of pasta (S$26), which tries to amp things up with large Japanese clams and a sauce emulsified with butter.
Except that size isn't everything - these bodybuilders of the mollusc world have pumped up shells but puny flesh within, and precious little liquor to give it that nudge from decent to briny joy.
We have to remember that this is a cafe, so once you calibrate your expectations, you can appreciate Caffe Cicheti for what it is - good for an easy-going lunch or dinner with friends where conversation comes before the food.
It's not particularly cosy with its tightly packed tables, woven chairs and forest-themed feature wall - a half-hearted attempt to inject some greenery into the urban enclave of South Beach. Service is polite but distant, and it's only much later when a bubbly young lady tells us that "confirm you will like the olive oil cake" do we feel a vague sense of hospitality about the place.
Out of a fairly limited menu, the burattini (S$21) hits the spot. There's little manipulation involved here, just a ball of buratta cheese that collapses into a creamy pool of dairy goodness that's elevated with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and the juices of chopped cherry tomatoes.
Stab and scoop with warm toasted sourdough bread and you're off to a good start.
Sardine frittes (S$18) could spark a debate about the definition of fishiness. The cafe's version of fritto misto has frozen sardines dusted in polenta and deep fried, served with creamy aioli and a large lemon wedge which we squeeze copiously onto the little fish to alleviate some of the funkiness. A good dollop of aioli helps too.
It's soon clear that the chef of Caffe Cicheti is Asian rather than Italian, as the flavours are very attuned to the local palate - you won't find anything very acidic or astringent, and even tomato-based dishes are mild - and that seems to suit its mostly Asian clientele just fine.
Its crabmeat Bavette (S$27) seems to have stronger links to a Singaporean zichar than the Italian seaside with its thin "mee pok" like noodles tender and bathed in a seafood gravy of crabmeat, zucchini and chilli. And the Iberico pork chop (S$29.50) could have been a runaway from a Chinese kitchen with a garlicky spice rub smothering the very fatty but juicy, very pink meaty chop.
The eye-wateringly acidic sliced green apple on the side is a bit of a misguided take on the pork and apple stereotype.
Cioppino (S$26) has all the good intentions of a seafood tomato broth filled with shrimp, mussels and squid but hasn't got the robustness of a good base broth to be taken seriously.
To end off, the "confirm you will like" olive oil cake (S$11) does have the moistness and crumb of a lemony butter cake, but a slightly bitter, vegetal edge and a "I know this ain't butter" prejudice doesn't make us converts.
But we reserve some antipathy for the tiramisu (S$12.50), which crosses the line from acceptable deconstruction into "dumb dessert tweaks".
Deliberately half-soaking sponge fingers so that they stay dry and powdery with hardly any cream to go around them breaks the cardinal rule of tiramisu that states you should not require teeth to eat it.
It needs to be soft, creamy, squishy and yummy. It needs to spark joy, not self-deprivation.
Caffe Cicheti could be better, and chances are that the kitchen wasn't performing at its optimum on the evening we were there. It's fundamentally sound, but we reckon if it pushes itself a little more, it could really raise its game.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.