HAVE YOU MET CICHETI?
Seven years and a pandemic on, the O.G. Cicheti wants in on the hype with a new menu
P.S. This is not a 26 minutes read lah.
To some, it was the hole-in-the-wall, no-signboard Italian that if you knew, you knew, on Kandahar Street. To pizza punters, it was one of the first few pizzerias in Singapore equipped with its very own two-tonne, hershey-shaped wood-fired oven that gives its Neapolitan pizzas—kneaded with dough that’s left to its own devices over a tight-lipped, three-day fermentation process—an irresistible char. To regulars, it was the odd little trattoria where a Penang-born chef and his all-local team serve up their take on traditional Italian recipes that were at times sacrilegious, but always delicious and kept them coming back time and again. To those who survived the recent pandemic, it was the pizza delivery pivot they’ve been waiting for since day one – launched to tide the restaurant through a nationwide lockdown.
To chef co-owner Lim Yew Aun and restaurateur Liling Ong, Cicheti was a labour of love between both cousins and first-time operators that began in November 2013 as a casual, upmarket Italian-inspired option with grand ambitions – one that rejected the notions that Italian food needed to be eaten off tables draped in pristine, white tablecloths, and only Italian chefs are capable of being at the helm. Little did they know that it would go on and form the bedrock of their beloved brand of Italian cuisine that today, along with a third sommelier-partner Ronald Kamiyama in tow, underpins their stable of three concepts strong and counting.
Over the years, while the rustic chic trattoria did enjoy somewhat enviable reputations as the go-to, all-occasion Italian for a devoted few, it somehow managed to lurk relatively under the radar as one of the local dining scene’s “best kept secret”. Expats quickly warmed up to the idea of a tattoo-clad, Singlish-speaking chef dishing out nonna-approved recipes, the locals appreciated having an Italian joint where they could wholly enjoy Italy’s many gastronomic gifts in an unpretentious setting. It was their own personal slice of Italy – right smack in the heart of Singapore’s Arab quarter Kampong Glam, a delicious irony that only added to its appeal. All that, however, changed when Bar Cicheti—the brand’s pasta- and wine- focused sister outlet—burst into the scene towards the end of 2018; and contemporary Australian brunch spot Fynn’s was rebranded into modern day osteria Caffe Cicheti a year later. Then a global pandemic came along with a wildly successful pivot to delivery that took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, the name “Cicheti” was on the tip of everyone’s lips.
As the doors of Bar Cicheti and Caffe Cicheti flung wide open to great fanfare, and the nation worked up an appetite for pizzas amidst a lockdown, a renewed curiosity befell the Kandahar street predecessor, each time sending streams of newly minted -Cicheti fans on a culinary mecca to where it all began. The menu—a cumulation of hallmark dishes that have stood the test of time, coupled with a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” sensibility—suddenly felt stark under newfound gaze.
This spurred chef Aun to revisit the menu that he’d first created, and has served as the springboard for many memorable signatures across the Cicheti offshoots. This time round, with fresh eyes belonging to group sous chef Dylan Cheong, who joins The Cicheti Group’s culinary leadership from stints at Gattopardo and Osteria Mozza, including a stage at chef Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana at Modena, Italy; and junior sous chef Reisuke Kiyose, a young, earnest chef who joined Cicheti as a line cook in 2016 and climbed up the ranks under chef Aun’s tutelage.
“2020 was the year I’d planned to travel,” stressed Aun, who until recently ran a mini Italian empire without having ever stepped foot into Italy, and was on a trajectory to expand his horizons until a coronavirus threw him off. “I had plans to go out and savour the world – one hard-earned holiday at a time. Then COVID-19 came along and thanks to my second-in-command’s in each Cicheti who held the fort throughout the circuit breaker, I could really focus on fine-tuning the new menu.”
“It’s the one good thing that came out of this pandemic,” he added sheepishly.