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Caffe Storico Chef Defends Cicchetti

The Italians call them cicchetti, the Spanish call them tapas. We call them appetizers, and many restaurants are serving them in lieu of entrees.

What's annoying is that many of these "little plates" are priced as if they were "big plates." A New York Times Magazine column last fall poked fun at the trend.

At Caffe Storico, in the newly-renovated New York Historical Society, executive chef Jim Burke, last week's guest on Last Chance Foods, serves little plates of rabbit porchetta for $12, veal tartare for $13 and langostino fritto (battered and fried prawns) for $16.

I asked Chef Burke, "Is this a way of getting more money out of people?"

"Definitely not," he said. "You have to depend on the restaurateur and their integrity, and hope they're not inflating the price too much. I don't think people realize how much we pay for these ingredients. But, especially considering what we do at Caffe Storico, it's a very traditional way to eat, especially in Venice. A lot of European cultures have this way of eating."

He realizes it can be a shock on this side of the Atlantic -- "the place of monster steaks and huge portions of pasta. It's different for [Americans], and takes some getting used to."

Certainly, that fictional couple in the Golden Corral "2 for $20" commercial won't be choosing cicchetti. They jump out of the back of their friends' car rather than submit to small portions.

But Burke thinks we WILL be getting used to little plates. He believes the trend is here to stay: "It's a fun way to eat, you can share a lot of things, you can order what you like and pass the plates around."

Well, not if there are only two small samples on it, like in the photo of Caffe Storico's langostino fritto that I saw on Yelp, but I digress.  

Eating little plates instead of entrees is also less formal. Chef Burke has mixed feelings about that.

"I have a lot of fine dining experience in my career," he said. Prior to opening Caffe Storico, Burke was at the helm of the now-shuttered James in Philadelphia. He was nominated for the James Beard Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic award in 2009 and was Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2008. "I don't love that every dining experience is becoming more casual, but it's certainly something people are looking for."

What about you? Do you like dining experience on little plates? Or would you rather jump out of a moving car?