Restaurant Review: Give yourself a real treat at Cicciolina, Cusco
June 12, 2014
Is it a pizzeria? A tapas joint? A wine bar? Even Cicciolina’s own advertising is guilty of perpetuating this apparent identity crisis, billing itself as “Bodega…Bar de Tapas…Restaurante”. Throw in the Italian name, add a Peruvian-Australian-Argentinian management team and the innocent diner could be forgiven for thinking confusion, rather than ‘fusion’ might well reign here.
Of course these days it only takes a few clicks of the mouse to find hundreds of online reviews and thereby some clarification, but having been disappointed by several highly regarded restaurants in both Cusco and Lima, I am afraid it takes more than hype – and reviews by people I don’t know from Adam – to convince me of a restaurant’s greatness, and first-hand experience is the only reliable judge.
So now that I have eaten there, let’s get one thing straight. There is a good reason that Cicciolina enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the best restaurants in Cusco: It is very, very good.
How to find Cicciolina
Located just yards from the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s pulsating tourist heart, Cicciolina is tucked away off busy Calle Triunfo on a colonial patio amongst identikit arts ‘n’ crafts stores, fragrant new age emporia and those ubiquitous pizzerias. On the plus side it means that Cicciolina does rather stand out from many of its competing neighbours and is also within easy walking distance of most of Cusco’s better hotels.
Don’t judge a book by its cover: Cicciolina’s rather inauspicious surroundings
Consequently it is an extremely popular choice at any time of year and when we arrived early one Friday evening, the queue of speculative diners stretched out of the door and half way along the first floor balcony that leads to the entrance. Top tip: Make a reservation for dinner or prepare to be disappointed.
The Casual Option
Without a reservation you will probably find yourself eating on high leather-cushioned stools at the bar or tall bistro tables in the long, narrow bar area closest to the entrance. Sheaves of dried red chillis and heads of garlic hang from the rafters of the lofty, vaulted ceiling. This is where the action takes place. You can see, smell and hear delicious food being cooked at the restaurant’s open kitchen as the smartly dressed and nimble staff weave amongst the furniture and show diners with reservations to their privileged seating in the restaurant’s more exclusive “salon” overlooking the street.
Choose from tapas or full a la carte in the lively bar area
There‘s a price to pay for such privilege, and in the salon it’s an additional 7 Soles per head cover charge. But if you want a slightly quieter experience and like to feel special, such a price is a small one. And of course you won’t have to queue up for a table either. The salon – although I can’t help thinking it should actually be called the “comedor” – exudes the understated grandeur reminiscent of a 19th Century European dining room – the type frequented by intellectuals who would meet to throw around philosophical ideas whilst downing shots of absinthe. Of course here things are a bit more civilised and although it is rarely quiet, there is a lively conviviality that makes eating here a very pleasant experience.
Good-sized oval tables are covered with heavy white linens. Large mirrors reflect soft candlelight as well as huge portraits hanging on blood-red walls – original works by Dutch artist Titus Bovenberg. It strikes the right balance between lively and relaxing, crowded and cosy.
You get what you pay for – the slightly more exclusive salon
Once seated we were quickly attended by a smartly dressed bilingual waiter who took our drinks orders as we got to grips with the fairly extensive menu which is mix of international and Peruvian dishes. There were also several specials of the day. Living in Cusco where it is often difficult to find decent fresh seafood we were drawn to the fishy fare and ordered accordingly. And as we awaited our food we enjoyed two ¼ bottles of sparkling wine – another treat as finding champagne in anything smaller than a full bottle is also a challenge in Cusco. We were very impressed that each mini bottle also came in its very own mini ice bucket. Real classy.
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Impressive-looking starters of scallops and seafood brochettes were promptly served and quickly devoured. The scallops, presented on reassuringly well-worn half shells were served with a dark sauce of ginger, honey, sesame and soy. They had a comforting smokiness and were plump, tender and sweet. The brochettes consisted of squid, more scallops and large prawns. They too had that chargrilled smokiness and were served with a piquant sweet and sour sauce and a light salad with cubes of silky Peruvian avocado. So far, so good. Actually, to be fair – so far, so excellent.
A great start: seafood brochettes and scallops
We continued the piscatorial theme with our mains. The seafood risotto was cooked to a perfect consistency and like the brochettes included scallops, squid and prawn. However, the creamy broth with its light touch of whisky and real ‘taste of the ocean’ prevented any sense of déjà vu. I chose one of the day’s specials, grilled paiche – a large Amazonian freshwater fish with a firm texture rather like a cross between salmon and swordfish. This, too, was very well cooked with a thin crispy skin and served with a light passion fruit sauce, a little grilled polenta – hiding underneath the boneless fish fillet – and a green salad.
You won’t find this back home: Amazonian river fish, paiche
Normally I don’t stretch to dessert but the first two courses had been so good – and of course out of a sense of duty to readers of The Only Peru Guide – we forced ourselves to share a dark chocolate mousse with Maras salt crystals and pureed lucuma, a subtly flavoured fleshy orange fruit native to Peru. It turned out to be an excellent decision. It looked beautiful and tasted superb.
Sweet or savoury? Or both? Chocolate mousse with rock salt crystals
Don’t worry if you are not a fish fan or are allergic to seafood as there are a handful of vegetarian dishes and plenty of meat dishes to choose from too, such as the starter of “causa” – a mashed potato stack – with confit of guinea pig, and the very popular main of osso buco. In fact I did over hear a diner from New York City on a neighbouring table telling his waitress that he had eaten all over the world and Cicciolina’s osso bucco was the best he had ever tasted.
The Bottom Line
Cicciolina does indeed cater for more than the full-on lunch and dinner crowd looking for a spot of fine dining in the heart of Cusco’s old town. They serve breakfasts from 8am each day and snacks, sandwiches and tapas can be ordered in the bar area from lunchtime onwards. However, we dined from the a la carte menu which is available to customers in the salon as well as to the more serious diners in the bar area too. So I hope that’s clear!
Starters are priced from 24 Soles (£5.25 or US$8.50) our seafood brochettes were 29 Soles (£6.25 or US$10.25) and the scallops 28 Soles (£6 or US$10). Lighter mains start at 33 Soles (£7 or US$11.75) and salads are priced from 24 Soles (£5.25 or US$8.50) Our seafood risotto was 47 Soles (£10 or US$16.75) and the paiche fish from the specials menu was 52 Soles (£11.25 or US$1.50). Desserts start at 20 Soles (£4.25 or US$7.25) with our exquisite chocolate mousse priced at 22 Soles (£4.75 or US$7.75).
At the bar, cocktails start at 19 Soles (£4 or US$6.75) and our mini bottles of sparkling wine were 26 Soles (£5.50 or US$9.25). Wines by the bottle start at 75 Soles (£16 or US$26.75) and glasses start at just 18 Soles (£3.75 or US$6.50).
My initial fears that Cicciolina could be trying to be too many things to too many people were quickly allayed at this classy restaurant, thanks to its warm service, friendly atmosphere and great food. Extra little touches really made it a stand-out restaurant for me: fine glass for wines, heavier glass for water. The clean napkin spread subtly over my messy spillages between courses. Don’t be put off by the 7 Soles cover charge for the privilege of dining in the salon either. Even with this charge, Cicciolina is still not the most expensive place to eat in Cusco and despite my cynicism it is most definitely one of the best.
The menu is not on the website so take this on trust – not hype – if you are up for a culinary treat while you are in Cusco make a reservation here.
Open daily for breakfast – 8am to 11am, lunch – 12 noon to 3pm and dinner – 6pm to 10pm