The Internet is fond of telling people that a stay in Venice is not for gourmands. We say, Venice may not do shocking innovation – but it can more than pique the palate of the foodie flâneur, with bite-size cicchetti served in Venice’s best bacari: low-key Italian tapas bars thronged by locals. Here’s where to head, what to order and a quick lesson on how to order…
DORSODURO: Clamber over the Grand Canal via the wooden Ponte all’Accademia and you’re in Dorsoduro, a quieter district where you can escape some of the crowds. Dip into the glories of Venetian art at the Accademia before heading south down Rio San Trovaso towards Zattere. Just past the first bridge, you’ll hit the Cantine del Vino già Schiavi – an upscale bacaro-cum-enoteca with dozens of wines by the glass (or by the bottle). Focus on the heavyweight Veneto numbers, and pair with the inventive, super-fresh cicchetti (small plates).
Tasting tip: As well as the raw fish and oysters, look out for the parmesan crostini with pistachio and figs; the tuna and leek mini ‘toasties’; and try at least two different regional wines.
Further down, at the end of the Fondamenta Nani, opposite a ramshackle gondola boatyard (squero) founded in the 17th century, you’ll find the tiny Osteria al Squero, where local students and Sunday ramblers queue cheek-by-jowl for cheap cicchetti and northern Italian wines to savour by the canal. A generous plateful of crostini topped with cured meats and cheeses plus a couple of drinks here will set you back less than €20. Take yours outside, prop up against the handy wall and soak up the sun.
Tasting tip: Don’t miss the hot crostini with unctuous melting lardo (pork fat) and pink peppercorns; or sweet and crispy polpette al carne (fried meatballs).
RIALTO – SAN POLO: Meander down the steps of the Rialto bridge market-bound and you’ll soon be surrounded by the mouthwatering mounds of produce and, further in along the canalside, fresh fish and seafood. The finest bacari (bars) scoop up the best on offer early that morning and use it for great-value daily specials; look out for soft-shell crabs from the lagoon, or baby squid. If the weather’s fine, head straight to scene-setting Muro Frari in sestiere San Polo for a tableful of antipasti (meatballs, panzerottini, charcuterie…), crudo or the immense seafood platter ‘del Doge’.
Tasting tip: Whatever’s on the ‘Sabato in Campo’ set menu: fresh fritto misto with a glass of Soave, perhaps, or prosecco.
More must-try bacari: Grab a canalside perch at Osteria Bancogiro, just north of the ponte on Campo San Giacometto, to snack on garlicky scallops atop squid’s ink-infused polenta chips, vitello tonnato (veal in a creamy tuna sauce) and anchovy-foam sandwiches, and curried crudo. Thirsty? Follow the curve of the Grand Canal down to Calle Cavalli for a few glasses of vino at Enoteca Al Volto (allegedly Venice’s oldest wine bar). To order like the locals ask for an ombra (glass of wine) or two and pair with their famous baccalà mantecato (creamy cod on polenta). And, if you’re running low on Euros, hit All’Arco (San Polo 436) for an ‘I’ll have one of everything and a bottle of red’ lunch of dinky delicacies at equally diminutive prices.
Next, continue to centuries-old osteria Cantina Do Spade, which crops up in Casanova’s little black book of date-night dens and also has a great menu of regional wines.
Tasting tip: They are rightfully proud of their bestselling cicchetti: the tuna polpette, crab claws (chele di granchio) and baccalà-stuffed courgette flowers (when in season).
CANNAREGIO: Unlike Dorsoduro and San Polo, Cannaregio is still largely the preserve of Venetians come aperitivo hour, and it’s where you’ll find a few of the more unusual bars (on your way out of San Marco, keep an eye out for eternally young Bacaro Jazz, with its jazz-funk soundtrack and bra-lined ceiling). Stylish pit-stop Ai DiVini (Salizada San Canzian, Cannaregio 5905) sits on the corner of Salizada San Canzian, and breaks the mould with trend-tapping offerings: it’s a tiny wood-beamed gastro joint with steel counters, which has gained favour with Venice’s in-crowd.
Tasting tip Delicious filled pastries, simple slate boards of cheese and charcuterie to share, and hot dishes make a nice partner to the wines and cocktails.
For more spring city-break inspiration, feast your eyes on the rest of our boutique hotels in Europe or read on for Lisbon and its backstreet bars…
CICCHETTI CHEAT SHEET
Follow your nose: The best bacari are nothing much to look at – they’re too busy serving customers to care about hipster lighting or natty napery. If there’s a buzz, a crowd spilling onto the pavement, the chatter is mostly Italian, and something tasty catches your eye, go for it.
Cash is king: Most local bacari don’t take cards (or don’t take kindly to them); come prepared with plenty (nothing worse than running out just when you’ve spotted some freshly made swordfish carpaccio…).
Check the daily specials: There’s almost always a mini set menu based on whatever’s freshest that day (especially near the Rialto fish market); otherwise, just point to individual cicchetti in the cabinet.
It’s never too early for wine: Venetians pop in for a mid-morning pick-me-up, a quick post-shopping perk or pre-dinner aperitivo. A tot of wine at 11am is completely acceptable.
It’s never too early for a Spritz: If you don’t fancy wine, have an Aperol spritz instead.
It *is* sometimes too late for coffee… Italians wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a latte after lunchtime.
Know your baccalà from your bresaola: Genning up on a few key terms will make it easy to earmark your preferred morsels: Venetian salt-cod baccalà is an unmissable mainstay on cicchetti menus.
KEY FOODIE PHRASES
‘Un/due/tre/quattro di questi, per favore’ – ‘One/two/three/four of those, please.’
‘Un’ombra de vin’ – A glass of house wine.
‘Un bicchiero di vino rosso/bianco’ – This will land you a pricier glass of red/white wine.
‘Delizioso! Grazie mille’ – ‘Delicious! Many thanks.’
Crostini – Mini bruschetta/toasted bread slices with various toppings.
Tramezzini – Teeny tiny crustless sandwiches, sometimes toasted.
Polpette/polpettini fritte – Fried balls of meat (di carne), tuna (di tonno), cheese or potatoes.
Baccalà (mantecata) – Traditional salt-cod (served as a pâte on polenta fingers).
Sarde/sardelle in saor – Sardines with a sweet and sour Venetian dressing of cured onions, raisins and pine nuts.
Feature image supplied by Mark Longair