Small Bites in Venice

In Venice, the custom called andar a cicheti, or stopping by the bàcaro for a glass of food or wine and some small bites of a delicious appetizer, is considered essential to life and well-being. Venice has long-been a culinary capital, and cicheti demonstrates the variety and quality of food for which the city is known. From simple stuffed olives to polpette, a fried veal and potato meatball, cicheti creates a platter of delicious bites to be had.It seems only natural that Venice, arguably the most magical and seductive city in the world, would have some secrets. Though the Venetian custom of enjoying cicchetti – the exquisite bite-size appetizers unique to this city – is no secret, when you step off the crowded, narrow streets into a cozy, cave-like bàcaro where cicchetti and wine are served, you may indeed feel you have stumbled upon a hidden treasure in the winding labyrinth of Venice.The bàcaro is a term that is hard to render: it is not exactly an osteria, not a restaurant, nor a wine bar, but a unique kind of place, with its own atmosphere – usually warm, cheerful and welcoming. It is the place where traditionally a small glass of wine, called an ombra, is served together with cicheti (chee-keh-tee), as they are called in Venetian dialect (deriving from the Latin word ciccus, meaning “very small”). Tellingly, the term ombra, which literally means “shadow,” comes from the times when wine was sold in the shady sides of the calli (side streets) or the campi (plazas). Historically, bàcari were simple places: small, dark canteens where a Venetian’s thirst for wine could be quenched and his appetite calmed – as early as 9:00am – after a long morning’s work, or in the evening hours before dinner. Nowadays, though some bàcari have become quite elegant, and in many places, cicheti have evolved into elaborate delicacies, the bàcari still maintain the authenticity and joyfulness of their simple origins.

Bàcari, Ombre e Cicheti

Venice changes and adapts herself only slowly, following it seems her own mysterious rhythms and those of nature, not the dictates of trends or shifting styles. Many customs, traditions, and ceremonies, such as the Festa del Redentore (the most important annual Venetian festival, commemorating the end of the plague in 1576) and the Regata Storica, go back centuries. Another cherished tradition, but without the fanfare, is“andar per bàcari” – which translates loosely as “going out” – and it is a kind of ars vivendi, or “living art” that is almost sacred to Venetians. The bàcari ritual – that is, the leisurely custom of going from one bàcaroto another, in the early evening, just before dinner, enjoying a glass of fine wine and sampling an assortment of cicheti – is still today basically unspoiled in Venice. The bàcaro remains a homey, intimate place for relaxed socializing and joyful conviviality. For a Venetian, there is nothing more delightful than to stay awhile with friends, meeting and chatting with whoever drops by, while enjoying a delicious nibble and quenching the thirst for a little wine. For the visitor, after a long day immersed in the abounding art and history of Venice, the down-to-earth pleasures of the bàcari come as a welcome relief.The partaking of cicheti is somewhat analogous to the renowned Spanish tapas – appetizers which were originally served to mitigate the effects of alcohol, specifically sherry. Today, the enjoyment of tapas is a very important part of the socio-culinary culture of Spain, where lunch is rarely served before 2pm, and dinner not before 9pm. The enjoyment of tapas is a pleasant way to calm the appetite during these long stretches between meals. There is a certain North African and strong Mediterranean influence in the variety of tapas, which often feature olives, anchovies, mackerel, sardines, and squid, seasoned with garlic, saffron and cumin, and served on different kinds of bread and flour-based tortillas. It is easy to understand why the Venetian cicheti are often compared with these tasty and much-loved appetizers from Spain. In Venice, they say “andar a chicheti”; in Spain it’s “ir de tapas.”But, to understand the Venetian tradition of the bàcari, one must understand one of the many reasons Venice was already one of the most famous and coveted destinations of sophisticated travellers centuries ago: its vast culinary repertoire. Venice in the 15th century was the most powerful and richest city in Europe – and considered the capital of fine cuisine. Certainly if the city could attract and sponsor the greatest artists in the world, they could also hire the most talented cooks for the palatial kitchens of the Queen of the Adriatic, as Venice was called. Though Venetian culinary traditions have always been based primarily on the fruits of the sea and lagoon that surround it, the variety and sophistication of its cuisine evolved over time through influences from the mainland and the vast territories in the possession of the Republic of Venice – westward up to the Garda Lake; eastward as far as Dalmatia, and as far south as Crete, Cyprus and beyond. In fact, Venice garnered its culinary wisdom and treasures from various corners of the world – from the south and east Mediterranean Sea, through its continuous contact (and wars) with the Byzantine and Muslim world, and even into Asia. As the epicenter of the spice trade, sensual La Serenissima – yet another name for Venice – could not abstain from the gioie della tavola, or “the joys of the table.” In fact, this is probably where the first experiments with “fusion” cuisine began – long before the term was ever thought of – and that creative spirit is still found today in Venetian dishes.The epicurean way of life is part of the Venetian ancestral memory and soul, and the bàcari are a reflection of that. Though, until the late fifties, the variety of cicheti served and the choice of wines was very limited compared to the offerings today. Years ago, a typical cicheto would have consisted of half a boiled egg with an anchovy on top, a stuffed olive or the classic slice of soppressa (a large cured Venetian salami) on a slice of grilled polenta, all held in place with a toothpick. As Italy and Venice became more affluent, the bàcaristarted to offer a wider choice of typical Venetian and regional appetizers. Today a whole range of tempting dishes will be laid out in a beautiful display, around which everyone gathers – sipping their wine and enjoying the delicacies while standing, which is the custom in most bàcari. Often hot cicheti come from the kitchen at an impressive rhythm. A very popular place in San Polo is specialized in roasted potatoes and is always full of young, hungry crowds. Elsewhere, you might find a little folpeto – a tiny boiled octopus seasoned with a delicate and aromatized extra-virgin olive and lemon, or a crostino with baccalà mantecato, which is a blend of codfish, olive oil, garlic and parsley. Often, a plate of freshly fried calamari will appear; or polpette,which most Venetians love from the time they are babies – a fried meatball made of veal and potatoes and other spices. You might also get an assaggino (a little taste) of a purple -black delicacy called Risotto con seppie e radicchio, which is made from cuttlefish cooked in its own ink with radicchio. Often friends organize a little tour of three or four different bàcari, and after happily traipsing from one place to the next, it often happens that no one feels the need to sit down for a lunch or dinner afterward.There is no exclusivity in the enjoyment of the bàcari – it is an experience beloved by Italians and tourists, and by young and old alike. You can find bàcari open from mid-morning to late at night, ready to accommodate a twinge of hunger and a desire for a little pause whenever it arises. For Venetians, relaxing in the company of friends with a glass of good wine and a delicious cicheto is understood to be a regular ritual essential for a person’s health and well-being – a bit of wisdom the rest of us are coming to embrace as well.