Cichèti are pronounced chi-ket-ee. I had to look that up. In fact, I had to look up a few things before visit one to North & Navy, unacquainted as I was with the tradition of bar-snacking in Venice. Still, there were questions required of our server before we felt ready to make our cicheti choices. And in the end, we just ordered them all.
Cichèti is Venitian versions of tapas, and they lead the menu at 226 Nepean Street. This was the address that until late last year belonged to Beckta Dining and Wine (now found considerably upsized in the Grant Mansion on Elgin Street).
Before it was Beckta’s, it was the Ritz Uptown, the ritziest of the then five-strong chain of Ritz restaurants scattered around the city. And now it’s returned to those Italian-ish roots, as North & Navy, run by chef Adam Vettorel (late of Fratelli, Domus, Supply & Demand) and Ottawa entrepreneur Chris Schlesak.
The Beckta blue is gone, replaced with mostly white walls covered with artful clusters of photos and vintage paintings. The dark wood floors are interrupted in places with Italian tiles. A gilt mirror dominates the front room. Soft brown leather covers new banquettes. Up a step or two at the back of house leads to a small private dining room, a long, handsome bar, and a view of the now-open kitchen. Tables are bare, lighting is soft, and though the room is noisy when filled, it’s not disagreeably loud.
North & Navy was a few days short of a month old at my first visit and a few weeks short, I’d suggest, of ironing out the service wrinkles we found. More recent visits have confirmed that the front and back of house are on the same page.
The cichèti turn out to be a round of simple pleasures — shimmering sardines on a bed of soft and tangy onions sweetened with raisins and topped with pine nuts for good measure; salt cod is rich, unctuous, zinged with lemon; sheep’s milk ricotta is house-smoked and totally dreamy, crowned with a trio of fennel treatments; polpette — meatballs — are robed in a light, flavourful ragu.
From the antipasti section, mackerel crudo works very well. Here, the soft fishy chunks are plated with marinated cucumbers and the salty crunch of fingerling chips. Both the citrus salad and the mushroom carpaccio, with pickled celery root, radish and shallots, are stunners.
Flour and water are put to good use in the Vettorel kitchen. They plate house rolled pasta shapes and structures rarely seen in Ottawa. Tortelletti look like sombreros for dollies, stuffed with ricotta and potato, sharpened with parmesan. They arrive in a simple butter-mounted potato broth balanced with a syrupy balsamic and rings of pickled shallot.
A hunk of pickerel is also perfectly cooked, set on a lightly braised brunoise of potato and onion, topped with a mound of matchstick zucchini.
Thick slabs of pink pork are splendid on a wobbly bed of polenta topped with whole leaves of grilled radicchio.
On that first visit, we found the principals of a dish called ‘warm octopus and potatoes’ weren’t really on speaking terms; and the corzetti (stamped coins of pasta) were tough (though we enjoyed the unctuous sauce, the crunch of walnuts, the crisp-chew of pancetta). And at a last visit, the fried smelts were misses — too dark, too much of a chew, not much of a pleasure.
Two desserts tried, both divine. Tiramisu — probably the best I’ve had in Ottawa. And the lemon tart scratch every itch.
We drank well from a wine list strong on Ontario and Italian choices at a many price points.