VENICE, Italy – Venice’s wine bars, called bacari in Italian, used to be one of the city’s best-kept culinary secrets. Now every travel magazine and newspaper travel page has published at least one or more articles on them. There are even tour companies that offer city tours of Venice which includes a stop at a local bacari, and you all know what that means. While most bacari are tucked away in the warren of calli that run from posh Saint Marks’s square to the working class neighborhoods of Santa Croce and Castello, but they are not that hard to find. In fact in San Polo you’ll find pubs, wine bars and ciccetterie all sitting side by side.
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Bacari are probably best known as an inexpensive place to buy wine by the glass and snack on ciccheti, the Venetian version of Spanish tapas. Stopping off at a bacari is a wide-spread habit that locals have had since the days Venice ruled the seas.
You can buy ciccheti by the piece at €2 to €4 ($2.60 US - $5.30 US) each and the selection varies from bar to bar and season to season, or by the plate. Prices for the by the plate choice vary according to on what is on the plate. Depending on the time of year you could be offered a choice of what was culled from the waters just beyond the lagoon earlier in the day, for example: braised baby octopus, fresh sardines that have been cleaned and stuffed with a savory filling or silvery anchovies that have been marinated in lemon juice.
But there is more than just sea food. In the spring and early summer delicate zucchini flowers still attached to miniature green zucchini, are shipped across the bay from the vegetable farms on the island of San Erasmos. The zucchini and their flowers are dipped in an air light egg 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 Rialto market vendors could make it to the bacari counters as well.
Ciccheti are served at room temperature and each bacari owner prides himself on having at least one ciccheto that he does better than anyone else. Al Portego is known for its tuna cakes, Alla Vedova owns the bragging rights for peppery meatballs, and at Da Pino there are two seafood specialties; boiled cuttlefish eggs drizzled with olive oil and parsley, and my personal favorite, whipped cod made creamy by the addition of olive oil and milk.
Most bacari are small and cozy with rickety tables on old marble floors and battered wooden beams on the ceiling. Most locals stand at the bar, order a cicchetto or two and an ombretta, a small glass of local wine, or a bicherino, a small glass of beer. After they catch 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 also serve more substantial fare which makes them a favorite with the working crowd. The young gondoliers sitting next to me at Osteria al Diavolo l’Aquasanta all ordered the house specialty, boneless boiled calf’s head, which they devoured with appetites that would make any Italian mama proud. Then, with bellies full and smiles on their faces, they headed back to their gondolas for another afternoon of transporting starry-eyed tourists through the watery Venetian streets.
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Venetian sailors may have picked up the ciccheti habit back in the 5th century BC while opening trade routes in the Middle East. There is an ancient Muslim custom of serving guests and strangers many dishes with each person eating a little from each. 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.
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Most bacari open around 9 AM and close around 8:30 PM or later if they also serve meals. Osterie and cicchetterie also serve chicchetti. Look for signs that say Cicheti Venexiani, that means it’s the real deal.
Here are some of my favorites:
Osteria Al Portego
Castello S. Lio 6015
Tel. 041 522 90 38
Specialties: grilled baby octopus, tuna cakes, shrimp salad.
Osteria al Diavolo e l’Aquasanta
San Polo 561/B
Tel 041 2770307
Specialties: deep fried cod, zucchini flowers, boiled calf’s head
San Polo 367
Tel. 041 5224599
Specialties: grilled cuttlefish, boiled cuttlefish eggs, whipped codfish
San Polo 429
Tel. 041 522 5401
Specialties: tiny truffle sandwiches, grilled vegetables
Ca D’Oro – Alla Vedova
Ramo Ca’ d’Oro
Tel. 041 528 6324
Specialties: spicy meatballs, fried artichokes