Polenta Crostini with Caramelized Mushroom Cicchetti – Venetian Tapas
I love these little bites! Especially now when mushrooms are in season!
On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, a group of friends and I went to an incredible and authentic tapas eatery where I first enjoyed Spanish tapas. It was an amazing experience, both culinary and culturally! I was thrilled to be able to experience these wonderful little plates in 1994 when few Americans had ever heard of these little dishes yet. Tapas were not yet a mainstream food item!
Although tapas are beloved by many today, a lot of people don’t know that Venice, Italy also has a culinary tradition of tapas known as ‘Cicchetti’ — aka: Italian tapas!
Cicchetti are simple, small ‘little bites’, and are often quite salty since Venetian cuisine was founded on salt because of it’s location on the Adriatic Sea (think: salt-cured sardines, anchovies, cod, and more). So for Italian tapas, or ‘chicchetti’, you need a strong salt element to excite the taste buds . . . freshly ground sea salt is my favorite to use in the kitchen.
The custom of Italian cicchetti is similar to Spanish tapas – appetizers eaten to offset drinking alcohol in the afternoon or early before the evening meal. There is a strong Mediterranean influence in all cicchetti and tapas: olives, anchovies, sardines, and garlic served on little breads, such as Italian crostini. It’s easy to understand why Venetian ‘cicchetti’ are often compared with the much-loved tapas from Spain.
Cicchetti are typically served in Italy’s traditional ‘bacari’ or ‘‘osterie’). Cicchetti bars have a social standup zone and a couple cozy small tables where you can sit down with your cicchetti that you ordered from the bar or I as did, order off a simple menu. I always ask where the locals eat. So that my husband and I go for some good eats that the locals enjoy. Because we went to a popular local bacari, the local crowds were spilling out in the ‘street’ along one of the canals . . . and they were happy and jovial locals.
But whether you sit or stand, cicchetti cost the same price whether you stand or sit.
Common cicchetti include tiny sandwiches, olives and vegetable, hard-boiled eggs, seafood and meat . . . and all laid simply on top of sliced bread or polenta. We tried samples of nearly everything!
You can literally have a huge lunch or dinner simply by choosing multiple plates of cicchetti.
Cicchetti are not considered a food option in Italian homes. It’s culturally normal to be offered and enjoyed by the locals in the city or town center. Everyone, whether the town banker or a cheese delivery person, stops for cicchetti.
Only your fingers and toothpicks are used to eat cicchetti, and always like in a cafe’, while standing up at the bar or by the cicchetti counter where they taunt you throughout the entire day. Cicchetti bars are quite lively during the day, as the local Venetians and tours typically eat cicchetti in the late morning, for lunch, or as afternoon snacks. Cicchetti are usually accompanied by a small glass of local white wine, which the locals refer to as an ‘ombra’ (shadow).
If ‘cicchetti’ are like Spanish tapas . . . then what are tapas?
Tapas actually refers to a style of serving food, rather than specific dishes.
- A “tapa” is a little bit of food served in a creative ways to tease the eyes first.
- When you go for tapas, you order lots of small plates to share with others who also share their tapas with you. This way, you can try a huge variety of different dishes all at once.
- Tapas start out with slices of meat placed on bread slices. They were then laid down on the top of cocktail glasses to keep flies from getting to your cocktail. “Tapas” is the Spanish verb for “to cover”.
- Soon the small bar snack started becoming just as essential as the drinks. So tapa bars started to become more elaborate. Just about anything can be served tapas-style!
- Today’s tapas can be quite sophisticated, ranging from small dishes of olives to elaborate culinary creations. There are even tapas contests to create the very best tapas!
In his article on eating cicchetti in Venice, Rick Steves sums it all up:
“Venice has a wonderful tradition of cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee) — the local appetizers that line the counters of little pubs all over town at the end of each workday. When in town, my favorite meal is what I call the “Stand-Up Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner” — visiting a series of these characteristic hole-in-the-wall pubs, eating ugly-looking morsels on toothpicks, and washing it all down with little glasses of wine. An added advantage is that local characters surround you. And, in a town with canals and no cars, pub-crawling is safe and easy.
Venetians call this pub crawl the ‘giro d’ombra’. Giro means “stroll,” and ombra — slang for a glass of wine — means “shade.” This dates back to the old days, when a portable wine bar scooted with the shadow of the Campanile bell tower across St. Mark’s Square. That wine bar is long gone, but the cicchetti bars remain, tucked away in the back streets.”
I highly recommend what my husband and I do: Get off the beaten trail where it’s heavily touristy and wander down the quiet streets in “the far reaches of Venice” as Rick Steeve’s says: Because it is off the beaten path “that you’ll bump into the thriving little bacari (as the local pubs are called).”
Look for these cicchetti options:
- deep-fried mozzarella cheese, gorgonzola,
- artichoke hearts,
- anything odd on a toothpick.
- crostini (small toasted bread with a topping) are popular, as are
- marinated seafood,
- olives, and
- prosciutto with melon.
- Meat and fish (pesce) munchies can be expensive, but veggies (verdure) are cheap, at about €3 for a meal-sized plate.
- In many places, there’s a set price per food item (e.g., €1.50)
- To get a plate of assorted appetizers for €8 (or more, depending on how hungry you are), ask for: “Un piatto classico di cicchetti misti da otto euro.” Bread sticks (grissini) are free for the asking.
- As I mentioned earlier above, cicchetti cost the same price whether you stand or sit.
Best Substitutes for Porcini Mushrooms
If you can’t find Porcini mushrooms or would like to try other mushrooms that are similar, the following can be substituted:
- Portobello Mushrooms – Portobellos are quite large with a super meaty texture and a great umami flavor. You can find them easily in supermarkets, making them one of the best substitutes for porcini. They are delicious added to risotto, soups, and gravies.
- Shiitake Mushrooms – Often considered the best substitute for porcini mushrooms because the two have a very similar look, texture, and earthy, umami flavor. Shiitake can easily replace porcini in any recipe especially risotto. Like portobello mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms have a strong meaty and umami flavor.
- Button Mushrooms – The most common type of mushroom in any supermarket, and therefore are the most affordable substitute for porcini mushrooms. When using button mushrooms, keep in mind that they are smaller and thus less meaty in texture. You might need to add more for an equal substitution for porcini mushrooms.
- Crimini Mushrooms – Cremini mushrooms are also quite small and pack a strong, earthy flavor. They have a similar meaty texture as porcini mushrooms so they are another choice to use in place of porcini.
Enjoying a perfect glass of prosecco! I had two!
Typical Cultural Norms for a Venetian “Giro d’ombre (Pub Crawl) Giro means “stroll,” and “ombra” — slang for a glass of wine — means “shade.” :
- Enjoy an aperitivo, a before-dinner drink, such as a spritz con Aperol, or a prosecco,
- I always, without fail, order a Bellini, which draw approving looks from the natives,
- Drink the house wines. A small glass of house red or white wine (ombra rosso or ombra bianco) or a small beer (birrino) costs about €1. The house keg wine is cheap — €1 per glass, about €4 per liter. Venetian for fine wine such as Vin bon can run you up to €10 per little glass. A blackboard usually lists several fine wines that are uncorked and available by the glass.
- Bars don’t stay open very late, and the cicchetti selection is best early, so start your evening by 6 p.m. Most bars are closed on Sunday.
For one dinner this week I prepared some flavor-packed Polenta Crostini Bites with Caramelized Mushrooms. I bet you can’t eat just one! These are absolutely delightful! Enjoy!Print
Polenta Crostini Bites with Caramelized Porcini Mushroom Cicchetti
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For the polenta
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tsp. finely ground sea salt
- 1 cup polenta
- 1 – 2 cups freshly grated Italian Fontina cheese, plus more to pass around to guests
- 1 – 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish and to pass around to guests
For the mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound porcini mushrooms, diced
- Finely ground sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 Tbsp. freshly minced garlic
- 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 2 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 1 long, thin loaf of Italian or French bread, sliced thin, toasted, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with fresh garlic
Cook the polenta
- In a medium, heavy pot over high heat bring the cream, stock, and sea salt to a boil.
- Add the polenta gradually, whisking constantly.
- When the mixture thickens, switch to a wooden spoon and adjust the heat to maintain a bare simmer.
- Cook, stirring often, until thick, smooth, and creamy, about 15 minutes.
- Stir in the Fontina and Parmesan cheeses.
- Keep the polenta warm over low heat, stirring occasionally.
- If the polenta gets dry as it sits, stir in about 1/4 cup of cream at a time, until it reaches your preference of wetness/dryness.
Saute the mushrooms
- In a medium skillet over high heat, heat the olive oil.
- When the oil is hot, place the mushrooms in a single layer, and do not stir!
- Cook the mushrooms to a sizzling point until they have caramelized on the bottom, about 2 – 3 minutes.
- When the bottoms are caramelized, toss them once and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Continue to cook without stirring for about 5 minutes.
- Season mushrooms with salt and pepper.
- Add the butter and cook until it begins to brown.
- Then add the garlic.
- Continue to cook until the garlic begins to brown, do not burn the garlic.
- Add the thyme and cook for about 10 seconds more.
- Add the lemon juice and cook until it evaporates.
- Add the wine, and simmer until the mushrooms are glazed with the sauce.
- Add the parsley.
- Then stir and remove the pan from the heat.
- Place about 1 tablespoon of warm polenta on each little slice of toasted bread (crostini).
- Place about 1/2 teaspoon of the mushroom on top of the polenta.
- Garnish with grated Parmesan and minced Italian parsley.
- Serve immediately.
Enjoy these Polenta Crostini Bites with Caramelized Mushroom Cicchetti – Venetian Tapas
This post was originally posted in 2010 and reposted in 2020 with more timely information and photos.
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I am going to want an entire bowl of that, not just one spoon!
That’s about what I did after I took this photo, Dorothy!
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What a great recipe! I simply love it! The photos are beautiful!
Thank you for your kindness Jennifer; so nice to ‘meet’ you through Sunday Supper!
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I have been looking forward to this recipe! I love polenta and have a wheat allergy. Now I want to turn all of my ideas for crostini into polenta bites!
thank you Brianne! I’m glad that this recipe is helpful to anyone who needs a gluten-free appetizer. What a great point! xo
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What a simply STUNNING recipe! Thank you for sharing it for the theme today!
I love y our ‘bites’ too . . . gruyere is such a fantastic cheese, Constance! xo
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Great recipe!!! I could eat this allll dayyyy!
Thanks so much Samantha! I actually did eat them all day!
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Ooooh, this one is definintely goin’ into the to-make pile!
You’re so sweet Mindy! I hope you enjoy and that you’ll let me know what you think after you make these.
Roz these are so FABULOUS !! Great for entertaining any gathering!! We love tapas, and so many Tapas restaurants are opening up all over the country! I very first time I went into a Tapas place was in Austin, Texas in 2006 when my daughter Annalisa worked there as the 5 pm. News Anchor for CBS in Austin. The second time, I really became familiar with tapas was when my husband and I took a trip to Barcelona, Spain in 2008. Nowadays, we find these wonderful little tapas places opening everywhere. It’s funny, going to Italy and visiting Venice, so many times, I never really looked at the Italian bars as little tapas places ( as Italian tapas style! )…But they are!! LOl…. Grazie per la ricetta!
Yes Anna and Liz, Italians have their own tapas too, but specifically to Venice. I’d love to experience tapas in Spain someday!
Now I have to go to Venice so I can compare the two! I’m also adding polenta to my meal plan for next week!
Amanda, oh yes, do check out the little cicchetti bars in Venice! Love your stuffed green olives too!
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Love that you used fontina cheese, it is so yummy!
Shaina, I’m addicted to Fontina!
WOW, these crostinis look incredible! You nailed it 🙂
Thanks Megan! Love your bacon-wrapped dates too!
wow this looks amazing
Thanks Rebecca, it’s also very easy!
Wow what beautiful photos and this recipe looks delicious!
Thanks Tammy, your “hellfire” wings wowed me too!
These tapas are stunning! Love, love them.
Velva, Velva, Velva! I’ve missed you! Thank you for your kindness and your visit! Can’t wait to see what you’ve been cooking in the kitchen!
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Such beautiful photos! I wonder if the term cicchetti comes from cicchetto, which in colloquial Italian means “drink/shot”? Maybe they are called cicchetti as they would be eaten with a drink as aperitivo? In any case, I wish I could reach one of those crostini through the screen and eat it right now! 🙂
I’m not sure what the name is derived from Manu….interesting question!
Oh, what fabulous food! It looks so tasty, and with the texture of the polenta and the depth of flavor of the mushrooms, they must be great. I say yes, please! Complimenti!
Grazie Adri! Baci!
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Polenta is my childhood comfort food. =)
But I can’t get my husband to like it. I ought to try your recipe and maybe I ll finally get him to switch to the polenta side of life =)
My husband isn’t fond of polenta either. However, he will eat it fried once in a while! They don’t know what they’re missing!
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I hadn’t heard of cicchetti before, though I’m not surprised because Europeans have a different way of eating. And your dish looks and sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing!
I’m glad you stopped by Martin . . . if you try this recipe someday, let me know what you think!
I’ve not yet had anything called cicchetti but after looking at these beautiful photographs and reading through your recipe, I know it’s what I must have!
Smart lady that you are indeed Maureen!
Oh, my, Roz! Your crostini bites sound incredible! I could pop a whole lot of these babies in my mouth 🙂 So happy to have you join the SS group this week!!!
Thanks Liz….wish I wasn’t so busy, I’d participate more often if I could! xo
I would definitely be eating a few of these bites.. then come back for more!
I think I did that too, and gained a few pounds as a result Pamela! Thanks for your compliment!
Roz these look amazing! Polenta instead of bread sounds delicious!
The polenta really makes a huge difference Cindy! Thanks for your visit!
What a great idea of putting polenta on crostini to make little cicchetti. They sound absolutely delicious.
Oh thank you Karen. We really enjoyed them; I think the porcini mushrooms topped them off perfectly!
Oh Roz – this is my favorite way to eat – small bites. Unfortunately, husband likes complete meals. I’d rather graze on these polenta bites all days. Love polenta with mushrooms – what a grand pairing. Happy New Year to you and congratulations on the new addition to the family A baby does change everything – in the best possible way.
Eating smaller bites and more often is even healthier for us too Claudia! I’d love to change my lifestyle around smaller bite-based meals!
I never understood the purpose of utensils. All good food can be made as fingerfood. 🙂 If these were on the menu, I would order at least two plates. I love the way you used the polenta on the toasts and the way you cooked the mushrooms is perfect!
I agree! Who needs utensils! Dig in and eat!
I had no idea about Italian tapas! Big shame on me. These polenta bites look lovely. Such a fun handheld appetizer.
Cool huh, Joanne? Italian tapas!
A great appetizer! Those polenta bites must taste wonderful. I love the idea.
I love using fried polenta instead of bread for bruschetta, Roz, as then the gluten free members of my family can also enjoy eating it. This would be a wonderful appetizer for Superbowl Sunday!
Fried polenta rocks doesn’t Pat?
Babe! I adore your blog soo much!! I’m your newest follower on Bloglovin’ :-).. Hope you can follow back!
Hi dear, very nice recipes!! 🙂 I’m your newest follower on Bloglovin’ :-).. Hope you can follow back!
What a mouthwatering post! I love tapas too, and these crostini bites sound divine.
Hi dear, you have nice blog and great post, can we follow each other? if you decided to follow me on BLOGLOVIN please let me know so I can follow you back, thank you
Will do Joice! Thx for the invitation!
I’m sure I couldn’t eat just one! They look and sound fantastic!
I was just a little piggie with these Susan!
What a beautiful recipe Roz. I’d really like to learn a lot more about authentic tapas. I wish I could have participated in this #SS event. It’s been a hectic couple of weeks.
Lea Ann, I know that life just gets so busy doesn’t it? I’m trying to blog more and glad to visit with my friends more!
i often slice up polenta thin and bake them for crispy bites but never thought to add a topping to them. It makes them more hearty and even more delicious! You always have the best ideas
Mama mia, Roz! I love this!!! Polenta is the best and I can’t wait to try these bites! Thanks for the recipe, nt friend!
Thank you Pam!
Thanks sweet Jessica! YOU are the one that inspires me with your creativity!
Oh my! This looks amazing!! You had me at caramelized. Thank you for sharing this wonderful recipe. I am pinning it and hope to make it soon. I’ve never tried making polenta before so that will be a fun new experience. I have been thinking about you today as we have been hearing about all the snow there. I hope all is well with you and your family.
I am so humbled, Shari, that you thought of me in Arizona during this unusual winter storm in the South! Blessings to you for your kindness
This is wonderful, I may have a problem with self control around this yumminess. xo
I know what you mean, Katherine. Self-control is a necessity with so many great recipes on our favorite blogs, isn’t it?
I’m just catching up on my blog reading and found this winner of a recipe Roz. Question – did you use dried or fresh porcini? The fresh ones are impossible to find here, and when you do find them, they cost a fortune.
Hi Linda, This time I used dried because it’s so difficult finding fresh in the market and as you said they cost a fortune!
Can’t wait to try these! I have been trying to give up my obsession with pasta and polenta has helped me with that! I recently topped mine with broiled tomatoes, capers, and asparagus! Great blog!
Thanks so much Jennifer! Nice to meet you and happy to have you stop by! I’ll come over and visit your blog now too!
Thank you everyone for visiting my blog and commenting so positively on these cicchetti! They are beautiful and delicious!
A friend made these last night for a dinner party. They were delicious but the recipe makes too much polenta for the amount of crostini and mushrooms. I would make one forth of the polenta, at most. Thanks for the recipe 🙂
Thanks so much Dragna! I always make extra polenta for the next day to “fry” and ladle bolognese sauce over it for dinner . . . it has to be a day old. But I’ll make note of that in the post and thank you again. I’m glad that the dinner party guests enjoyed the crostini!
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I love your recipe, this simple bites of yours look delicious and stunning. Thank you for sharing this one, I will try this one soon.
Dear Mega Sardines,
How did they turn out for you?
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I love this recipe and made it several times it just the best flavors together with caramelized mushrooms are a perfect match
I’m thrilled to hear that Claudia! Let me know the nest time and shoot a picture so I can share it with others!
Thank you, thank you,
Such a fun post, and terrific pictures. I’d have two glasses of prosecco, too. 🙂 I love dishes like this — could make an entire meal out of them. Thanks!
I agree John! And I’d love to enjoy these while in Venice!
I absolutely love this recipe and it’s perfect for anyone gluten-free since it’s on a mushroom and polenta, not bread! Beautiful photos and interesting information and shares from your travels.
I didn’t even think of that (gluten-free), but you’re right! Another benefit. Thanks for your complienti!
Ohhhhh my these are beautiful! I’ve never turned polenta into crostini that’s brilliant! I love the mushrooms, and Fontina is a perfect choice! Thanks!
Thanks so much, Chef Mimi, I enjoyed making these and then eating far too many!