Written by: Colleen Thompson
Photography by: Raul Sojo Montes
Italians have many great sayings that embody the spirit of food, friendship, and family. My favorite is a tavola non si invecchia; at the table, you don’t get old. Italians never eat alone—the phrase implies that if you’re at the table, you’re also surrounded by family and friends. Of course this also includes the grandparents, Nonno and Nonna, enjoying good health and happiness in their old age.
It’s this feeling that Osteria Cicchetti (simply known as OC), located in Wilmington’s The Forum, has worked hard at evoking. With a warm and cozy atmosphere—like all good osterias— they make you feel a bit like you are part of their family. From the down-to-earth, authentic greeting you receive from Manager Shelley Musleh as you walk through the front door through to the hearty Italian fare prepared by Executive Chef Matt Rodney, it all adds up to wanting to linger-just-a-little-bit-longer.
It’s a good thing that when husband and wife team Kevin and Stacey Jennings of Urban Food Group expanded into Wilmington and bought OC, they didn’t want to reinvent a formula that was already working. What they did do was tap their very talented Bocca Bay Sous Chef, Matt Rodney, to take over at Osteria Cicchetti and allow him to tweak the menu and incorporate a few chef-driven items.
“Change is hard, whether you are a frequent guest or an employee, but Urban Food Group’s core values lined up with OC’s very well. Maintaining who we were but all the while moving forward was a balancing act,” says Manager Shelley Musleh. “Bringing Executive Chef Rodney on board has been exactly what we needed. His culinary skills and innovation, his ability to lead his team, his work ethic and positivity all add up to having a great partner in this space, where the pace is so fast and often stressful.”
The popular staple dishes have not changed, the aesthetic is the same, and the majority of the staff are still the same. “We have added a few of Chef Rodney’s dishes, such as the new gnocchi and ravioli, as well as a duck confit, and created a menu strictly for the bar. At the core we are the same OC; ‘Spaghetti Cicchetti’ is not going anywhere,” adds Musleh.
Chef Matt Rodney was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and then moved with his family to the small South Carolinian town of St. George. “My mom is a great home cook, and that’s really where it all started for me—tinkering around the kitchen. After school I ended up in the Apalachicola Bay, about thirty miles of shallow oyster paradise, pulling and eating oysters straight out of the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t get much better than that. I think it was there that I decided I wanted to be a chef,” says Rodney.
From there he worked his way through a number of restaurants from To Kill a Mockingbird to Hot Fish Club in South Carolina and onto the Charleston Café, where he became Executive Chef.
“As a chef I learned everything through on the job training,” Rodney recalls. “I ended up in Wilmington at the age of 24 at Circa 1922, working with Executive Chef Marc Piscitello, who’s now Executive Chef at Brasserie. I learned many things from Marc, but in particular, I learned how to make and roll sushi, which is how I ended up becoming Sous Chef at Boca Bay.”
Simplicity is the cornerstone of great Italian food: fresh, seasonal, simple. The art of good Italian lies in pairing flavors well. “More than changing the menu, I think I’ve refined it, particularly with things like sauces and making sure they are reduced properly to extract maximum flavor,” says Rodney. “Although many of the same dishes have remained on the menu, I have tweaked and reworked all of them. I’ve also focused on making everything from scratch, so I’ve broken down the practices and streamlined the process. All of this has only been possible with the backing of a great team, which I have—from my sous chef to my expo Dan (the liaison between the kitchen and dining room).”
Staying true to the name Cicchetti, particular attention was given to the new bar menu. Cicchetti are small snacks, similar in concept to Spanish tapas, which are typically eaten accompanied by a small glass of wine called an ombra. Historically, bàcari (wine bars) offered cicchetti along with the local house wine to be eaten standing at the counter of the bar.
Think wild mushroom bruschetta drizzled with truffle oil; stuffed piquillo peppers with a balsamic reduction; classic arancini with caramelized onion, fennel and Romesco sauce; or perhaps a petite Stromboli. All of the dishes are easily accompanied by a down-to-earth Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva. Or, like Chef Rodney, you might prefer them paired and quaffed with his favorite IPA, Tropical Lightning, from Wilmington Brewing Company.
Many of the menu favorites will remain on the winter lineup, but part of evolving the menu and putting the chefs stamp on it is the addition of his favorite dish, duck confit. Duck legs are left to cure for 24 hours in a brine of salt, sugar, fennel seeds and cloves. The legs are then covered in duck fat and cooked long and slow until meltingly tender before being rounded off with a port wine reduction. The confit is served alongside blanched brussels sprouts seared in white wine, shallots and garlic, as well as a creamy cauliflower puree.
“Braised meats, alongside vegetables like brussels sprouts, is probably my favorite way to cook in the winter. It’s my idea of comfort food, which honestly stems from my mom’s slow cooked Christmas lamb. The food I enjoy eating the most, however, is anything cooked by someone else—it always seems to taste better,” laughs Rodney.
The ability to put together a good menu and a decent dish is only one part of being a great head chef. Knowing how to listen, communicate and lead a team of eight cooks is another. “Being a head chef is much more than cooking. Sometimes I have to be a therapist. Sometimes a mediator. Mostly I have to be the calm one; not get strung out and lead by example,” remarks Rodney.
It would appear that OC is in the strong capable hands of a bearded, laid back chef who, despite his playlist (Rage Against the Machine, Metallica and Three Six Mafia) is unflappable and focused, and that always translates into the rhythm of good food.