20 May 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Chi Chi Cicheti

VENICE, Italy - One of the Venice’s best-kept secret are the homey little wine bars called bacari. For the most part, the rustic bars are hidden away in the warren of calli and alleys that run from posh Saint Marks’s square to the working class neighborhoods of Santa Croce and Castello. You can buy wine by the glass and snack on cicheti, the Venetian version of Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum, and the Venetians have been doing just that since the days Venice ruled the seas. They are the culinary oases the locals head for when they get hungry.

Streets of Venice

Cicheti vary from bar to bar, and from season to season, and you buy them by the piece or portion. Tasty offerings may include tender braised baby octopus, fresh sardines, cleaned and stuffed with a savory filling, silvery anchovies that have been marinated in lemon juice, all culled that morning from just beyond the Venetian lagoon. In the spring and early summer, delicate zucchini flowers, still attached to miniature green zucchini, are transported across the bay from the vegetable farms on the island of San Erasmos. The zucchini, and their flowers are dipped in an air light batter and flash fried in hot oil. As the languid days of summer pass and the weather cools, white cannelloni beans, marinated with onions and olive oil, and lemony artichoke hearts may make an appearance. Spicy slices of tongue, savory strips of tripe, little meatballs, bits of cooked salami, purchased from the Rialto market vendors, may make it to the bacari counter as well.

Hungry Gondoliers

Cicheti are served at room temperature and each bacari owner prides himself on having at least one cicheto that he does better than anyone else. Al Portego is known for tuna cakes, Alla Vedova for peppery meatballs, and at Da Pino there are two seafood specialties; boiled cuttlefish eggs drizzled with olive oil and parsley, and whipped cod made creamy by the addition of olive oil and milk.

Cozy bacari

Most bacari are small and cozy. The tables are ricety, the marble floors old and worn, and over your heard you'll probably see battered wood beams that run across the ceiling. Locals stand at the bar, order a cichetto or two and an ombretta, a small glass of local wine, or a bicherino, a small glass of beer. After catching up on the latest gossip, they move on to another bacaro and start all over again. The custom of going from one bacaro to another is called un giro di ombre, and it is a long-standing Venetian pastime.


Some bacari offer more substantial fare making them a favorite with the working crowd. The young gondoliers sitting next to me at Osteria al Diavolo l’Aquasanta, ordered the house specialty, a portion of boneless boiled calf’s head, which they devoured with gusto before heading back to another afternoon of transporting starry-eyed tourists through the watery Venetian streets.

Mmm, mmm good.

Venetian sailors may have picked up the cicheti habit while opening trade routes in the Middle East where the ritual of serving guests many dishes with each person eating a little from each, is part of an ancient Muslim custom of showing hospitality to strangers. Sinister minded historians suggest the custom was introduced in the courts of Constantinople (Istanbul) to prevent Ottoman potentates from being poisoned; others think it was simply a convenient way of sharing what the host had to offer. Either way, this centuries old tradition continues still in Venice.

Happy Barcari owner

Most bacari open around 9 AM and close around 8:30 PM or later if they also serve meals. It is a savory, satisfying and convivial way to enjoy lunch, especially for the gastronomically curious.

Expect to pay about one euro ($1.20) for most cichetti selections. An ombretto of local wine or a bicherino of beer, cost about the same. Most bacari close around 8:30, unless they serve meals. Look for signs that say Cicheti Venexiani, that means it’s the real deal.

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