Venice is one of the most fabulous destinations and an absolute bucket list item for nearly everyone. The iconic canals, amazing architecture, friendly people and fascinating history make for a vacation you’ll always remember. But one thing on your list of must-do items when in Venice? Eat! The Venetian food is traditional and palate pleasing for sure, but as all Italians know there is no good food without a good story to go with it.
Part tradition, part satisfying nosh, cicchetti are similar to Spanish tapas in that they are small bites, usually just enough to satisfy for the time being. The name comes from the Latin word ciccus which means small amount. There is no one way to define cicchetti other than to say it is a tasty finger food typically enjoyed with a small glass of local wine called an ombra.
The Evolution of Cicchetti
Whether fable or fact, one of Venice’s most celebrated foodie favorites, cicchetti, has a back story that began the ritual of cicchetti and ombra. Centuries ago the local wine merchants sold their wine from movable stalls or carts in St. Mark’s Square and in order to keep the wine cool and palatable they moved along with the shadow of the giant bell tower, the Campanile. This gave birth to the term “un ombra di vino” or “a shade of wine”.
Not wanting to drink on an empty stomach, the wine patrons sipped their ombra with simple bites such as an anchovy topped egg or a small bit of seafood. These tasty little treats were prepared to be eaten on the go.
But St. Mark’s Square wasn’t the only place to find cicchetti and ombra. For many, many years the central area of Venice known as the Rialto was the place where much of the international trading was done. The merchants, financiers and bankers were the movers and shakers of their day and had no time to spend frivolously over lunch.
Enter the early fast food, an assortment of small bites and a mid day mood boosting glass of wine in the shade of the famed Rialto bridge that spans the Grand Canal. This quick, delicious and satisfying pause in the day was enough to keep business running.
Here Come the Bácari
Soon this evolved into the bácaro bar where the wine is served at a counter and you may order from a wide variety of cicchetti displayed for you to see, or simply leave it up to the server to come up with their own assortment of tasty nibbles on a plate.
Most of the bácari are very small establishments with no tables and you enjoy your cicchetti and ombra while standing and visiting with friends or other patrons. Sometimes the party spills out onto the street and you carry your Cicchetti and ombra with you to the next bácaro.
Cicchetti are meant to be enjoyed while standing or walking around. This may be why they are a favorite among Venice’s most famous boatmen, the Gondoliers.
Classic Cicchetti are prepared using regional favorite ingredients such as fish, seafood, boiled eggs, cured meats, cheeses and stir-fried veggies. What began as a humble little snack meant to stave off stomach rumblings is now a topic for debate among many Venetians.
The simple fare made by home cooks has been overshadowed by chefs creating outstanding examples of Cicchetti. Of course the best way to decide which cicchetti is your favorite is by taking part in a giro d’ombra, or cicchetti crawl. This moveable feast offers you a wonderful way to immerse yourself in local culture, see some sights and enjoy some delicious local fare and some of the best wines from the Veneto region.
Some Cicchetti to Try
Here are a few of our favorite Cicchetti:
Fritti: These delicious morsels are deep fried and among the most common Cicchetti in the local Venetian bácari. Try the breaded and deep fried mozzarella, small bites of arancini, deep fried rice and meat shaped like a ball. Seafood and veggie tempura are also very popular.
Crostini: You may think you know crostini but you’ll come away from your giro d’ombra with a different idea of these tasty topped toasts. Not all crostini cicchetti are toasted but they are slices of bread topped with, well, just about anything. There's paté, both meat and fish, some local cheeses, smoked and cured lunch meat and charcuterie, eggs and anchovies, goat cheese, gorgonzola with honey and walnuts, marinated vegetables and porcini mushrooms. Is your mouth watering yet?
Meats: Cicchetti is typically more seafood and fish than meat given the location of Venice. However, there are some cicchetti that feature meat. Classics include meatballs (polpette), veal stomach and liver with onion and parsley (legato alla veneziana).
Fish: The most traditional of the cicchetti would be fish and seafood. Sardines marinated with raisins and pine nuts (sarde in saor) is a traditional and classic cicchetti. A delicious creamed cod served on a square of polenta (baccalá mantecato), a spread of cod, anchovies and onions on a crostini (baccalá vicentina) and tiny octopus called moscardini served atop polenta are some luscious local tidbits.
Vegetables and Salads: Delicious marinated green beans, peppers onions, peas and pancetta, anchovies and octopus and potato salad round out any selection of cicchetti very nicely. They also serve as vegetarian options for those who don’t eat meat.