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Venice, in spite of a glorious past as a maritime and commercial power of Europe, is now a small town with a population some sources estimate at 58,000 habitants, and others in 67,000, most of whom live in the Castello district and especially in Giudecca Island.
However, this so unique group of islands still receives about 20 million visitors a year.
This situation led to the fact that by now hardly remains any “non-tourist” restaurants. In order to stay in business, local restaurateurs have been forced to focus increasingly on tourists.
But do not despair, it’s not all lost …
To find the true flavors of Venice, we still have the baccari, those bars serving a wide variety of cicheti (small bites and finger-food, similar to the Spanish “tapas”, the Argentine “Picada”, or the American snacks and appetizers).
-While in Italian it is spelled cicchetti, in Venetian dialect it is written as above; and that’s the way we’re going to follow on throughout this post-.
You’re supposed to eat one cicheto with each glass of wine (to avoid getting drunk, or at least not too fast), while doing the rigurous pub crawl trying the cicheti of different baccari.
That crawl through neighboring baccari is called “Giro d’ombra” by the Venetians, where “giro” means stroll and “ombra” means shade -and is also Venetian slang for a glass of wine, go figure -.
We can trace the origin of this name to the old days when a portable wine bar was “strolling” from one place to another in the Plaza de San Marcos to stay under the shadow of the Campanile Tower.
Anecdotes aside, the city has a long tradition and a wide variety of cicheti: meat (salami, meatballs …), fish (fried calamari, baccala on crostini bread or polenta, sweet and sour sardines, gold fish…) and vegetarian (stuffed olives, sun-dried in olive oil, rice arancini with saffron, tomatoes and pecorino cheese …).
Most baccari have a standup zone, usually near the bar, and a cozy area with tables where you can sit with your plate or choose from a not too wide menu -check before sitting, in some of them you’ll be able to sit only if ordering a la carte–.
Usually, the locals also scatter in the streets to keep on socializing there while enjoying their cicheti and wine glasses.
So… to drink?
To go with your cicheti, the usual way is to ask for the house wines, usually listed on a blackboard specifying those uncorked and served by the glass.
A small glass of house red or white wine (ombra rosso or ombra bianco) or a small beer (birrino) costs about $1.50.
But, with no doubts, what you must try is the Spritz.
The legend says that this drink was created during the Austrian occupation during the 19th century: the Venetian wine had been too strong for the Austrians, so they always added some water to it. On the other hand, the Venetians thought that this mix was too light and flavorless, so they decided to “strengthen it” with the addition of Aperol (a local bitter) and changing the plain water with sparkling one.
Legends aside, by today standards the “official” Spritz should be 1/3 sparkling water, 1/3 quality Prosecco wine, 1/3 Aperol, and lemon zest.
Drop an olive, and there you go…
The Top 10
1- Al Timon
With some luck you’ll be able to enjoy the best of this bar: sit back and relax with your glass of Spritz on the barge moored opposite the bar.
In summer there be a live jazz band playing on the boat.
Here you can taste some of the best home-made cicheti, just a few steps from the Grand Canale but far from the tourist crowds.
Fondamenta dei Ormesini, Cannaregio
2- Ai Rusteghi
A real hidden treasure, due to its almost secret location in a private courtyard; with intimate lighting candles, right next to the chaos always surrounding the Rialto Bridge. Perhaps the best wine bar in Venice.
It has no fixed menu but offers an outstanding wine selection and cicheti of an exclusive variety of meats : boar fumet, pancetta, or the unparalelled and silky lardo di Colonnata.
When choosing wine, definitely ask Giovanni, the fourth generation owner-sommelier who knows everything about wine, to select it for you. After carefully watching you, evaluating the wine suitable for you, he’ll eventually bring a varietal that will hardly disappoint you.
Options range from a classic Pinot Grigio to a powerful Refosco, or from a vigorous Brunello di Montalcino to the purple sensuality of a Sangiovese, among the 350+ varietals they carry…
There are often ‘Wines of the Month’ on offer, which are cheaper to purchase by the bottle, to take away.
Open Monday -Saturday : 10am – 3pm, 6pm – midnight
Campiello del Tentor, San Marco
3- Osteria ae Cravate
Upon entering the restaurant you will see a lot of ties hanging around (hence its name, since cravate means tie in Italian).
There is no written menu, but the owners speak English and are very helpful when trying to explain each dish to you.
Their offering changes daily according to seasonal ingredients, but the restaurant specializes in fish.
An average meal will cost around € 30 per person including a bottle of Prosecco.
Salizada di San Pantalon, Santa Croce
4- Paradiso Perduto
Where locals come to hang out and eating fresh fish in a lively bustling atmosphere.
Eat on a quiet canal tucked away from the tourists circuit.
You can grab a plate of fresh fish and sit on the side of the canal, watching boats go by.
Fondamenta della Misericordia, Cannaregio
5- Al Bottegon
A legendary Baccaro with a perfect location on the San Trovaso Canal in the elegant Dorsoduro; beloved by university academics from the nearby University and a colorful crowd of visitors and locals.
It is a busy bar in which you must remain standing -yes, no tables or stools- but has a large selection of wines.
Anyway, what really leads us there is the variety of cicheti on display behind a glazed bar. Every day they prepare 60 different cicheti: swordfish tartar sprinkled with cocoa, the pesto Genovese with mascarpone, ricotta and dried tomatoes, smoked tuna with Parmesan and leeks’ julienne, etc.
At € 1.20 or 1.50 each, a half dozen can compose a good lunch.
Fondamenta Nani, Dorsoduro
6- La Palanca
Without any exaggeration we can say that the view from the tables outside is one of the most spectacular Venice.
Located on the shore of the Fondamenta Ponte Piccolo, the landscapes of the canal and the Fondamenta Zattere, with some vaporetti or even a giant transatlantic crossing by, are worth the visit.
It also has a small, cozy room with wooden beams, but aside the views the best of this place is still their food, and the passion of its owners to suggest any of the dish of the day to the diners.
Just ask for advice from the owners, or search among the dishes of the day for : linguine with local carciofi (artichokes) violetti andcoda di rospo (monk fish), the linguine al nero di seppie -with a large amount of squid-, or the squid stewed in ink with slices of grilled polenta.
Fondamenta Ponte Piccolo, Giudecca
7- Osteria Alla Ciurma
This place, frequented by connoisseurs, is an old warehouse converted into a small bar that resembles the inside of a ship, which gives it its name as ciurma means crew in Italian.
Within its tiny kitchen they prepare remarkable dishes: creamy baccalà mantecatto (codfish creamy mousse), tuna polpetti (meatballs), or zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies.
A good glass of house wine costs € 0.90, the cicheti between € 1 and € 1.50, and a sharing plate of cheeses and salamis € 15.
8- The Caffeteria in the Palazzo Franchetti
Few visitors know the self-service bar located inside the Palazzo Franchetti, the pastel yellow building with the Gothic façade standing next to the Academy bridge.
This caffeteria has large glass windows overlooking a lush garden, and high vaulted ceilings with hanging gimmicky chandeliers.
Every lunchtime a buffet table is served with twenty different freshly prepared dishes including pasta, rice salad, roasted eggplant and zucchini, arugula and radicchio, roasted meat and chicken, and occasionally octopus and celery salad.
It offers an “all you can eat” system for €15.
Lunch only, closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
Campo San Stefano, San Marco
9- La Zucca
A cozy, friendly little place which serves excellent and original dishes.
The wood-walled interior is decorated with pumpkin-related drawings and paints (zucca means pumpkin), and looks out over a narrow canal and a small bridge. In summer they place three or four tables outside on a lane.
With its menu of seasonal vegetarian creations and classic meat dishes, it’s usual that this cozy restaurant gets busy very early.
In summer, the small interior can be suffocant, so booking a place along the canal is almost unavoidable.
The menu changes frequently, but usually includes delicious dishes like tagliatelle with walnuts and pine nuts, cinnamon-tinged pumpkin flan, or lamb with dill and pecorino.
Leave room for dessert as they tend to be very special.
This restaurant opened in November 2014 and is still very little known. It proposes one of the best-quality deals in town for lunch.
The modern and bright dining room is on the ground floor of a striking building that back in the 12th century was part of the Convento dei Crociferi (Convent of the Cross), near the monumental Chiesa I Gesuiti.
For lunch, the chef daily prepares half a dozen different pasta dishes, using fresh, local products. A hearty dish of spaghetti alla carbonara, the tortelli filled with ricotta cheese or a white asparagus risotto are usually priced around € 8, including a bottled water and an espresso.
Open every day
Dei Gesuiti, Cannaregio
If you happen to visit Venice, give a try to any of these places, you’ll live a great culinary experience in the amazing scenography composed by the canals and Venetian architecture.
And always remember that life is about the journey, and not the destination…