When in Venice, do as the Venetians do and eat cicchetti
Venice is a city that has been praised for centuries for its beauty, art, architecture, and romantic setting. However, one thing I hear a lot is “there’s no good food in Venice”.
I understand the sentiment. Venice is full of restaurants catering to tourists, especially along the routes that link the main sites. Last time I was in Venice I walked by a restaurant that served Italian food, Chinese food, sushi and gelato, and their sign said they had the best of all four.
I think not.
Authentic Venetian cuisine is quite heavy on seafood. That makes sense given their location in the middle of the lagoon and the abundance of fresh fish available. If you're not a fan of seafood you probably won't enjoy the local specialties as much as you'll enjoy the local food in other regions of Italy.
But what Venice does exceptionally well is their cicchetti (pronounced chi-KEH-tee).
Cicchetti are a uniquely Venetian food, found no where else in Italy. Venetian cicchetti (plural, the singular is a cicchetto) are in some ways similar to Spanish tapas. Just don’t call them Venetian tapas to a Venetian, they may be insulted.
They’re small bites, mainly served on bread. You can enjoy a couple as a snack, or sample a variety for a full lunch or dinner.
You’ll find cicchetti at the bacaro, which is the Venetian version of a small local wine bar.
These bacari (plural, singular is a bacaro) can be found everywhere in Venice. They’re often a bit dark, rustic, and really don’t look that impressive. They’re all about the food and wine, not the decor.
Along with your cicchetti you can order an ombra, a small glass of local wine. "Ombra" translates to shadow in the Venetian dialect.
Legend has it that the term came from the wine sellers who used to sell their wares in the Piazza San Marco. The Venetian sun can be intense, so they would move their stalls throughout the day to stay in the shadow of the bell tower. Hence the expression "un'ombra di vino" or "a shadow of wine."
Types of cicchetti
There are several different types of cicchetti, each unique in its own way.
Crostini - These are served open-faced, like bruschetta. They can be topped with meats, fried or marinated seafood, vegetables, or almost anything else you can think of. One of the most popular is baccalà mantecato, a creamed codfish spread on a slice of bread or polenta. You’ll see it everywhere.
Polpette - small balls of fried fish, meat, cheese, or potatoes. Some are similar to a croquette, others are more like a meatball.
Panini - Small sandwiches, with fillings served inside a roll, sliced focaccia, or sliced ciabatta bread.
Tramezzini - Sandwiches made with crustless white bread. Instead of the filling being placed between two slices of bread, a single slice of bread is wrapped around the filling.
Sarde in Saor - While this cicchetti can be served on a slice of bread or polenta, it can also be served without the bread. It is a dish of marinated sardines and onions. If you've only tried sardines from a can you should try sarde in saor, you'll rethink sardines completely!
How to order and eat cicchetti
Bacari don’t normally have table service. Instead they have a counter or case, with the cicchetti pre-made (but very fresh) and laid out ready to order.
Ordering is simple. Walk in (you may need to squeeze your way up to the counter), point to what you want, and tell them how many. If you don’t speak Italian and they don’t speak English, a little sign language will do the trick.
Along with your cicchetti you’ll want to order a beverage. An ombra of red or white wine is considered acceptable most any time of the day. If you prefer a cocktail you can order a spritz, either the traditional Aperol or Campari spritz, or the more traditional Venetian Select spritz (my personal favorite).
Once you have your food and drink, take a look around. If there’s a place to sit you can feel free to be seated. If theres not space to sit down you’ll eat and drink standing up, which is more traditional anyway.
Many places in Italy, like coffee shops, charge extra if you sit at a table. But at a bacaro you’re normally welcome to sit if they have space available.
While cicchetti are the original “cibo da mangiare con le mani” (food eaten with your hands, or finger food), they are not food that’s meant to be eaten "to go" while walking around. It's about being at the bacaro and enjoying the company, the food, the wine, and the atmosphere.
One thing to note, many bacari have traditionally not accepted credit cards. More do now, but it’s still possible you could find one that only accepts cash. You'll want to make sure you have some.
Cicchetti are usually charged per piece (€1-5 each depending on the type and the toppings), or you can order an assorted plate. It’s an inexpensive way to try multiple things. Part of the fun is trying unusual combinations, and toppings or fillings you may not normally order.
Un giro d’ombra
Venetians love to visit multiple bacari in what’s known as a “giro d’ombra”, the Venetian version of a pub crawl. Many bacari have a specialty, or they make different daily specials.
To be able to take advantage of those different specialties, it’s quite normal for a group of Venetians to go from bacaro to bacaro, visiting 3-5 in an evening. They'll enjoy a few cicchetti and a glass of wine or a spritz at each over the course of a couple of hours.
Where to eat cicchetti
If you're going to eat cicchetti, the next question is "where do I find the best cicchetti in Venice?"
The answer is, it depends on where you are.
Don't worry about looking for someone else's definition of "the best". It really isn't worth searching out any one place in particular just to say you've been there.
It's much better to be spontaneous and enjoy the experience, rather than having a list of places you want to try and traipsing all over Venice trying to find them all.
There are bacari throughout the city, with many great options located in the neighborhoods away from the main tourist sites. I always recommend getting a bit lost in Venice. You’re on an island after all, you can only go so far!
Eventually you'll find yourself in a small street in the middle of who knows where. You'll get hungry (or thirsty) and be ready for a break. That's when you'll take a look around and find a bacaro.
You'll probably spot it because of the crowd of people spilling into the street. Stop in, order a few different cicchetti and a glass of wine, prosecco, or a spritz. You'll swear it's the best cicchetti in the city even if it's never made it onto a "best cicchetti in Venice" list.
That being said, I do have a list of a few of my favorites in the Rialto area.
Since the Rialto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Venice, there are a lot of restaurants around that I wouldn't recommend. It's easy to think there are no local places to be found, but there are several just around the corner from the main streets.
This tiny bacaro doesn’t have any seats or tables, it’s only the size of the counter, with and a bit of space to step in and order. It’s just around the corner from the Rialto market, so very central and easy to get to.
My favorites here were the polpette, the tuna was superb and they also make a very nice Select spritz.
Bar Rialto da Lollo
Also near to the Rialto bridge and the market, Bar Rialto da Lollo is a great spot for tramezzini. You’ll see a huge selection in the window as you walk by, and they have even more inside at the counter.
An interesting combination we tried was their salmon and egg. It was quite good, sort of like an egg salad with a slice of salmon added to it. I wouldn’t normally think to serve salmon and egg together, but it worked well.
All' Arco is on every list of where to eat cicchetti in Venice. Featured on shows like Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” and Phil Rosenthal’s “Somebody Feed Phil”, it’s always packed and has a line out the door and down the street.
They do have a few tables outside, if you’re able to snag one you can spend a few minutes people-watching while you enjoy your food and drinks.
Their cicchetti are outstanding, and the service is friendly even though their always busy. It’s an incredibly authentic neighborhood bacaro that simply happens to be very popular with tourists as well as locals.
Cantina do Mori
This bacaro is said to be the oldest in Venice, founded in 1462. For centuries Venetians and visitors have been visiting Cantina do Mori, and it’s one of those places you can go into and almost feel the history.
For that reason alone it would be worth a visit, but they also have delicious cicchetti as well as a wide variety of wines by the glass.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to eating cicchetti, you really can't go wrong. If you're not sure what to try you can simply point to anything that looks interesting, and order a glass of the house wine to go with it. You won't be disappointed.