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NORMALLY I WOULDN’T DO THIS: mention tripe, tongue, and sweetbreads in the first sentence. No, no, no. The very thought of organ meats makes some people woozy. But here’s my point. A chef who makes a cow’s innards appealing—and Will Packwood emphatically does—can make anything else taste great. At two-month-old Cibo, located in a vintage Austin brick building brightened with abstract art, Packwood has delivered his most personal culinary statement to date. Following flings with fussy, high-style fare at Emilia’s and exotic seafood at 7, the 35-year-old has turned for inspiration to the summers he spent near Venice surrounded by his mother’s people and their love of earthy peasant cooking.
Having scared you half to death, let me underscore that the bulk of the trattoria menu at Cibo—the name is pronounced “Chee-bo” and means “food”—is populated with mainstream, easy-to-love dishes. I mean, the man may be a dreamer, but he’s not a fool. Admirably light, the potato-based gnocchi dumplings have been lavished with sage-tinged brown butter and olive oil, while a meaty tomato-and-Parmesan bolognese sauce pools prettily around flat tagliatelle. The long-simmered risotto, another classic, is flecked with bits of bright-green spinach.
(In fact, the rice dish, silky but far less oily than is often the case, is something of a specialty here, with a changing lineup of variations.)
But if these are dishes I have eaten dozens of times, others with familiar names surprised me, as I think they would most diners who are used to pumped-up American renditions of Italian fare. The thin wedges of plain, unbuttery white polenta were more like dryish grits; grilled, they reminded me of toast points. The equally unadorned disks of “semolina gnocchi” resembled nothing so much as firm Cream of Wheat. Did these two inspire love at first bite? No, but I’m keeping an open mind. If Packwood’s mission is to introduce Austin to the honest, homey dishes of everyday Italy, maybe we have something to learn.
But now, here’s the part I know you’ve been salivating to hear about: the special Extreme Eaters menu. Just for kicks one lunchtime, a friend and I ordered all five of that day’s daring items. Our unanimous conclusion: Loved ’em. Mild and tender, the short ribbons of tripe alla parmigiana could have been mistaken for calamari. The braised tongue was robustly finished with green olives and tomatoes and could easily have passed for pot roast. The liver with winey caramelized onions should cancel out anyone’s traumatic childhood memories, while the buttery nuggets of sweetbreads rivaled the best preparation of this rich organ meat I’ve ever had—no kidding. The last and most challenging was tortelli filled with minced rabbit in a dark cream sauce tinted with—get ready—the critter’s own blood. But, really, why should a little blood faze anyone who enjoys a rare steak? If these are the scariest things Packwood’s offering, have no fear.
As the soft-spoken chef says, “When I lived in Italy and would sit around talking to the older men in the neighborhood, they would go on and on about these crazy things. Dishes like these are the food of the people. Granted, my customers may like some things and not others, but at least when they leave here, they can say, ‘That’s real Italian food.’”