Thursday, December 26, 2013 / 11:30 AM
Ron Buechele of Capitalist Pig and Mad Art Gallery doesn’t do normal. It’s not exactly de rigueur when a painter and former policeman turns a 1930's art deco police station into a funky art gallery / events space / sustainable-barbecue shack.
And it will be anything but normal when Buechele does a complete change of theme and turns Capitalist Pig into an Italian small-plates cicchetteria with a wild BBQ/Asian/Italian fusion menu this coming spring.
Cibbu (pronounced CHEE-boo), which means "food" in Sicilian, will be the name of the changed space, explained Buechele. A cicchetteria is a place that serves cicchetti (pronounced cheh-KET-ee), a form of Italian small-plates dining popular in Venice.
“The simplest explanation is that it’s like Italian tapas,” said Buechele, “or mezze in the Mideast. It goes back to the 1400's, when wine carts served people wine and snacks in St. Mark's Square, in the late morning and afternoon. As the vendors moved through the shade with the shifting sun, people started to call a glass of wine l'ombra, which means 'a shade.' Over time, the carts became storefront bars called 'baccari' and the menus expanded. They still offered 'shades,' and the food choices might include grilled artichokes, fritto misto like the fried seafood of the day, arancini of different types, salt-cod baccalà and lots of things served on a piece of crostini or thick crusty bread.”
“There are only a few other restaurants in the U.S. doing this,” he added. “One in Seattle, one in New York and one in L.A.”
Buechele plans an assortment of cicchetti that nod to tradition and allow him to play with his own culinary ideas at the same time.
“We might do house-made Bocconcini mozzarella balls and sliced heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella in a kind of Caprese salad,” he said. “I’ve made artichoke with speck and fresh mozzarella (above); red and gold beets with English cucumber and citrus olive oil; and a braciole of beef flank, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and mint (both below). I'd like to do interesting ravioli like smoked and braised beef or pork cheek or pork belly for the filling. Instead of doing a traditional creamed cod on crostini, I'd like to do creamed, smoked local trout. A lot of cicchetti comes on crostini so we'll be making a good crusty bread, too.”
The Mad Art macher cannot resist incorporating BBQ in the Capitalist Pig style, as well the Asian cooking techniques that currently obsess him, into the mix, too, he said.
“I've done a maple/bourbon-marinated, smoked pork belly in mini bao buns (below), with a pickled daikon/jalapeno/carrot garnish,” said Buechele. “I'd like to offer that. I've done a fabulous Tonkotsu (pork-broth) ramen, made with slow-cooked pork bones for the broth, smoked pork belly, house-made dashi, a soft boiled farm egg, house-made alkaline noodles and house pickles. It's like a barbecued ramen! I would serve it in a smaller cicchetti-sized portion. I have an idea for smoked fried rice. I can see doing porchetta that's been smoked and then roasted in a small sandwich or on a plate, diced and served with a poached farm egg. I'd like to offer a plate of smoked meats with bread in the cicchetti version.”
“For dessert, a simple, spreadable, dark Belgian tempered chocolate and Himalayan pink salt on a crostini is amazing,” he said. “I'm also thinking ice creams, Italian ices, traditional Italian-style cookies and coffee.”
Buechele says he envisions the price points of his cicchetti at $5, $6 or $7 a plate, and that people will fill up on multiple plates.
“I'm playing on the concept of friends hanging out and having small bites with paired drinks, and doing that for two to three rounds,” he said.
“The drink menu will have beer poured from a new draft system. There's so much good craft beer coming from St. Louis. There's a kombucha beer from Ava, Illlinois, I'm looking at, too,” he added. “Something that's been prominent in Japanese culture for long time is called 'shrubs' – it's drinking vinegars as digestifs and mixed into cocktails. I'm interested in that, and in house-made bitters and chef-inspired cocktails.”
Buechele is turning to an increasingly popular method for a little help in funding the big changes for the restaurant: Kickstarter. He plans to ask for a whopping $40,000 in January.
“I'll need the money for new paint, new lighting, better chairs, the draft-beer system and other stuff,” he said. (Those unfamiliar with the seating at Mad Art always find it a charming surprise; diners eat in the former cop shop's hallways and jail cells. It's fun, but it's also a challenge to make a space so clearly not designed to be a restaurant into one.)
“Kickstarter gives it more of a sense of urgency than Indiegogo, where you still get something if you don’t make your goal,” Buechele added. “With Kickstarter everyone has to come together and make it happen or it doesn’t happen at all.”
If he meets the Kickastarter goal, he said, Cibbu will conceivably be ready to open by spring, in March or April. If he doesn't, he predicted, he'd hope to open sometime over the 2014 summer. He hopes to be open for dinner – and not lunch – most nights of the week, with a reservation-only policy on Saturday nights. That's yet another big change from Capitalist Pig, which has operated largely as a lunch-only spot.
“The Pig,” as regulars call it, will be missed, but Buechele has strong opinions about the current BBQ renaissance in the Lou.
“I just think even though I'm trying to be local and creative and sustainable with the barbecue, I feel like in terms of a menu it may be growing stale,” he said. “How many people do brisket, pulled pork and ribs? I think of barbecue as a method of cooking. I don't think that's been fully explored around here. All the different things you can do with smoke and fire, in all the different cultures, from South American to Korean to Indian to Southeast Asian to Cuban to Spanish to Central American to Central European to Pacific Islander – everybody does their own version of smoke over long periods of time with coal or wood and an optional grill. It's universal. Barbecue is not just Texas/Kansas City/Carolina. The origin is bigger, it's global. My strengths are Southern Italian and Mediterranean, and I'll be exploring those along with barbecue and Asian with Cibbu.”
What Buechele isn't saying is that his yen for experimentation and novelty is taking him to some frontiers largely unexplored in these parts, and that's always a risk. We're hoping that once the high-concept, Manhattan-esque Cibbu is up and running, fickle St. Louis diners decide to give it a try.
In the meantime, Capitalist Pig smokes on, and this Friday and Saturday, December 27 and 28, the Pig celebrates its one-year anniversary with an all-you-can-eat special that includes pork shoulder, brisket, burnt ends, and smoked chicken wings.
Inside Mad Art Gallery
2727 S. 12th
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