I’m wondering if it would be impolite to lick my fingers as I chow down on a perfect bite of toasted brown bread lathered in creamy radicchio and Parmesan, topped with a mound of rosemary-roasted porchetta, when Luigi, my cooking school teacher asks, “Do you like?”
I nod affirmatively and state the obvious, “Yes, I like. I like very much.” Luigi smiles proudly.
This is the culmination of two hours of preparing cicchetti, Venice’s beloved small bites, at the Sapori Cooking Academy inside the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa. Chef Luigi Delia has done the bulk of the work, assembling each mouth-watering morsel and explaining how to do so along the way. I have helped by taking a taste here and there and sipping a spritz of prosecco and sparkling water.
I became curious about cicchetti after learning about them from Chef Fabio Trabocchi, an award-winning Italian chef in D.C., who described them as uniquely Venetian. Luigi, who has been teaching at the academy for two years and hails from Sicily, confirms this.
“Cicchetti can be eaten like appetizers, but you mostly eat them during the day or between 5 and 9 in the evening,” he says. But then he also says he’s seen people having spritzes and cicchetti at 9 a.m., so there seem to be no hard and fast rules around when to eat these tiny meals, traditionally found in local bars known as bacari.
I ask Luigi if Sicilians have small bites like cicchetti, and he says they do, but it’s different. There you order small plates in one sitting. In Venice you can stop someplace and have just one or two bites as a snack for just a couple of Euro each.
Before we start our study in these perfect small bites, Luigi presents me with a chef’s hat and apron, which definitely makes me feel official in the well-appointed kitchen, which is outfitted with six cook stations.
But everything about this experience is relaxed, especially under Luigi’s tutelage. He’s been teaching at the academy for two years and brings with him Michelin-starred and French restaurant training, along with a playful attitude.
As we heap a generous lump of mortadella, a fatty Italian sausage meat, on a small crostino layered with a bitter-orange marmalade and soft Gorgonzola, Luigi says the best cicchetti are always fat, meaning overstuffed or piled high with ingredients.
To be clear, this isn’t about quantity, but quality.
“Use just a few ingredients, or you don’t understand nothing,” Luigi says, a mantra he’s learned to cook by.
There is no shortage of quality ingredients passing through this kitchen, and Luigi makes it a point to show me in three preparations of oysters, one with just seawater, the others with a mignonette sauce and a splash of prosecco, where the simply prepared oyster is the standout.
This is where Luigi shines as head of the raw-bar experience at the JW Marriott Venice. He cooks a ceviche of sea bass in a preparation of lemon and oil, packing in pungent flavors like fresh cilantro with tomato and red and yellow bell peppers for a festive bite in color and taste.
By the end, we’ve made 12 types of cicchetti ranging from the traditional bruschetta, a small crust of bread rubbed with garlic and topped with fresh tomatoes and basil in olive oil, and baccala mantecato, a creamy Venetian-style cod served on a tiny baguette slice, to the more inventive — a quinoa salad with Sicilian shrimp or a take on eggplant parmigiana, fried eggplant cream layered with Parmesan chips and fresh and sun-dried tomatoes.
We sit to taste them all at a handcrafted table, designed by the architect of the resort and made from the bottom of a boat that once sailed in Venice, where Luigi tells me that cicchetti are eaten without plates. They were intended to be the ultimate to-go food, but I certainly don’t want to rush through this experience or the spread before me. So I don’t. I savor each bite.
You can book the cicchetti cooking experience Tuesday through Saturday for 2 to 12 people for 100 Euros per person at the Sapori Cooking Academy at the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa. You can also book authentic Italian cooking and pasta-making classes. Please check the resort for up-to-date times and prices.
Robin Bennefield is managing editor of Marriott TRAVELER, prone to spontaneous travel near and far. She’s @RobinsHaveWings on Instagram.