Italy

The Venetian Bar Crawl: A Definitive Guide to Bàcari and Cicchetti

I could honestly sit here typing for a week solid on everything I love about Venice, but I’d rather not have carpal tunnel syndrome in my early thirties. Instead, I’m going to settle for simply showcasing my FAVOURITE EVER Venetian pastime – setting off on a (self-guided and marginally tipsy) bar crawl.

A proper Venetian wine/snack crawl goes by many names. Rick Steves calls it “The Standup Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner”, which is perhaps the only thing ever written by Rick Steves that I’ve enjoyed reading (soz Rick). Venetians call it giro d’ombra (literally a wine stroll), and me? – I call it a “bacrawli”… but all of this will be explained in just a moment.

In Venice, far away from the crowds and tourist traps, there are dozens of little places called bàcari. Bacari (singular: bacaro) are small establishments that serve up drinks and little nibbles called cicchetti. Cicchetti could be described as being a bit like Venetian tapas, although a Venetian would probably slap me for daring to say that. To shorten a long story, cicchetti are essentially just little bite-sized offerings of fresh, seasonal deliciousness that you snack to ‘open your appetite’ – and also so you don’t get super wasted. It’s usually less than €3 for a glass of prosecco in Venice, and I’m about to tell you about places where a glass of wine goes for less than €1 so trust me – eat.

I truly believe that the most authentic cuisine and positively charming atmospheres in all of Venice are to be found right inside these historic little bacari, and I’ve made it my mission in life to create the perfect crash course below so you can do them, and yourself, justice.

PS: If you want to enjoy your cicchetti alongside a professional guide and expert, I highly recommend my friend Monica Ceserato – who runs excellent food tours (including this one focused on cicchetti) in Venice.

Let’s start with food:

Cicchetti comes in hundreds of forms, whether it be meat, fish, or veggie-based. The following are just a few of the true Venetian classics you’re likely to find –
* Little fried meatballs (polpette) of either beef (carne) tuna (tonno) or eggplant/aubergine (melanzane).
* A little octopus (polpo) skewered by a toothpick. Morbid? Maybe. Delicious? Definitely.
* Sarde in saor – Venetian style sardines… usually with onions, vinegar, pine nuts, and raisins (I know it sounds weird as fuck, but trust me on this).
* Baccalà – incredible creamed salt cod, usually served on crostini or a slice of polenta.
* Mozzarella in carozza – fried mozzarella… a.k.a the unbeatable hangover cure.

There will also probably be tiny sandwiches, various marinated vegetables, local cheeses, lashings of cured meats, and pretty much anything that’s able to fit on a piece of bread or crostini.

Whatever you end up choosing, a plate of 4 or 5 cicchetti should only set you back about €6-€8.

Thirsty? Me too. This is what you should be drinking:

Wine
Oh, Italian wine. I could happily drown in you… many a time I almost have.  The Italian region of Veneto (of which Venice is the capital) produces stunning wines. For red, you really can’t beat a good Amarone. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. If you prefer a lighter red, Bardolino is always a safe bet. For white, Soave and Pinot Grigio are your friends. Servings of wine are sometimes listed at bàcari as ombra, which actually means ‘shade’ in Venetian. The name comes from old-timey Venice where a wine merchant would sell vino from a little cart in Piazza San Marco. To keep the wine from spoiling, he’d move throughout the day in line with the shadow of St. Mark’s Campanile. An ombra is smaller (and cheaper) than a standard glass of wine, which means you can stop by a few bacari without getting sloshed or breaking the bank.

An ombra front and centre with two standard glasses of vino behind.

Prosecco
This sparkling white wine is produced exclusively in two regions of Italy, and the Veneto region is one of them. Prosecco is sometimes spoken of as a cheaper alternative to champagne, but we all know the French are snobby bastards so give it a try and decide for yourself. Prosecco is made from an entirely different grape varietal and fermented differently than champagne, and I actually find prosecco to be much more approachable and refreshing. Because it’s local to the region, it’s also incredibly affordable across the city. Cin cin to that!

Spritz
This vibrantly coloured classic cocktail consists of an Italian bitter liqueur paired with either prosecco, prosecco and soda water, or white wine and soda water. I have yet to crack which combination is the most authentic as everyone seems to disagree, but the more important question is which bitter to choose. Here are your main options:
Campari: The strongest in flavour and pretty high on the alcohol content – not recommended for amateurs!
Aperol: Lighter and less bitter than Campari, and has also become all of the rage across Europe in recent years due to an enormously successful marketing campaign.
Select: The true Venetian bitter. It’s garnet red and sits somewhere between Campari and Aperol in terms of how strong/bitter it tastes. This is my absolute favourite!
Cynar: A notably less common variety, which is actually made from artichokes.

* If you really want to, you can have a bellini… but they tend to only be found in places catering to tourists (and they usually cost a fortune). If you must have one, Harry’s Bar is where the drink originated.. and they still do the best bellini in the city.

Important notes:

* A fair few bacari are closed on Sundays, so Sunday is not a day that I’d recommend attempting a major bacrawli.
* There are usually somewhere between zero to six seats in the bar area of these establishments, and the norm is to stand (either inside or out) and chat with everyone. Don’t be shy, I’ve met so many lovely locals this way.
* The early bird catches the worm, and in this case the worm is ambiance. I’m not saying don’t go to a bacaro in the evening, but definitely try popping into a few earlier in the day for a more relaxed experience… especially if you’re visiting Venice in the summer months.
* If you find yourself feeling ravenous, some of the places listed below also do proper meals. The cicchetti counter will be at the front, and you’ll notice lots of tables inside which are for proper diners (not just someone grabbing a snack). If you ask for a menu and a table you can sit down and have pasta etc.

Ready to set off on your own bar crawl? Here are some of my favourite spots to drink like a Venetian, by sestiere

(Note: sestieri are the different neighbourhoods of Venice – for a full breakdown of Venetian jargon and how their wacky address system works, see my ‘Beginner’s Guide’ to Venice!)

Cannaregio:

Cantina Vecia Carbonera – Rio Terà de la Maddalena, 2329
Some places just scream VENETIAN AF to me, and this is one of them. Cantina Vecia Carbonera is a no-nonsense, zero-frills establishment that serves up a selection of classic cicchetti, perfect to accompany your €1.50 ombra. There are loads of communal tables at the back, where you can join the locals for a cicchetti session.

Alla Vedova – 3912
THE MEATBALLS. I need you to try the meatballs. Alla Vedova isn’t just a bacaro, it’s a proper trattoria serving up some incredible local cuisine. I do recommend it for dining, but I often just pop in for a couple of glasses of house wine (poured from a big pottery jug) and a few of their famous fried meatballs (polpette) which literally melt in your mouth. They churn out hundreds of them in the evening, but they go as quickly as they arrive so keep a close eye on the bar for fresh bowls of them coming out of the kitchen.

These little meatballs are always the first and last thing I eat when I’m in Venice.

Decanter Vineria – Strada Nova 4383
I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover this new gem. Although the Strada Nova is one of Venice’s main drags, nestled between the tourist traps are some of the city’s most authentic spots. Decanter is newly opened (just before the pandemic!) and run by two young locals. Seeing Venetians, especially younger ones, reinvigorate the city with authentic shops and restaurants is literally the best thing I could ever wish for Venice, so I was so pleased to see Decanter absolutely buzzing with locals. If you’re into your wine, their selection is both well-curated and well-priced. The cicchetti is refined and plentiful – my favourites was a spicy pumpkin and cavolo nero number laced with just enough chili.

Osteria al Tappo – 1138
Tappo is located in the ghetto, an area in Cannaregio where Venice’s Jewish population were once forced to live, separate from other residents. The modern word ghetto actually derives from this Venetian term. Venice’s ghetto is still the hub of culture for the city’s Jewish residents, and you’ll find some incredible kosher restaurants and bakeries as well as a synagogue – all worthy of a separate post which I’ll link here when finished! Tappo is an excellent addition to this part of Cannaregio, which is normally peacefully devoid of tourists. The service here is absolutely exceptional, with wines and cicchetti to match. I had a glass of refosco (a delicious local red) and some polpette in their relaxing private courtyard – a real rarity in Venice!

Cicchetti in the courtyard.


Dorsoduro:

Cantina Schiavi – Fondamenta Nani, 992
This is an excellent and very well-known (read: busy) bacaro, normally packed to the brim with locals and tourists alike, but absolutely worth every second you may have to wait. On any given day there will be at least 15-20 options to choose from, including plenty of unique offerings you won’t find elsewhere in Venice. My personal favourites? The classic baccalà is creamed salt cod on a small crostini, but try their version laced with garlic if they have it – so good! The crostini topped with brie cheese and nettle sauce is incredible too, as is the one with egg and edible flowers.

A collection of cicchetti and the world’s most perfectly timed gondola.

Aea Canevassa – Calle Foscari, 3255
I can’t believe I’m sharing this one as it’s off the tourist radar and one of my truest hidden gems in Venice. Aea Canevassa is run by the most amazing Venetian couple, Donato and Roberta. I first met them when they owned and ran another bacaro in Campo Santi Apostoli, which I used to frequent so often that Donato once gave me a staff t-shirt! They’ve since sold the old place and opened up this new venture right by the local University, still serving up the same great food and great vibes. I can’t make a trip to Venice without stopping in a few times to give them big hugs and eat some of Donato’s incredible cicchetti (just ask him for a plate of his favourites – you’ll never be let down!). I love their gamberi in saor (the prawn version of the classic sardine dish), and this is also the best place to find highly seasonal dishes such as moeche (tiny fried soft shell crabs) and castradina (a lamb stew served on and around the annual festa della salute). In terms of drinks, Roberta always makes excellent wine recommendations – and the best spritz in Venice! If you stop in, please tell them Courtney says ciao!

The seafood dream.


San Polo:

Cantina Do Mori – 429
A strong contender for my favourite bàcaro. Do Mori dates back to 1462. It’s an old-fashioned haven of wine, and I could easily spend an entire day drinking, eating, and people-watching here. It’s said Casanova himself used to frequent this bar, which makes me wonder what I would give to go back in time and have a chat with him over a bottle of wine. Speaking of wine… they’ve got huge wooden vats of them behind the bar. I would crawl into one and drink myself to death if I could, but I’m not sure I’d fit. Food-wise anything you try will be delicious, but I’m a sucker for the ubriaco (drunk) cheese and the lardo on crostini – literally FAT ON TOAST, you’re welcome. Fun fact: they open at 8:00AM (for the fisherman at the nearby Rialto market who pop in after work)… #wineforbreakfast.

Breakfast wine is the way forward.

Bacaro al Ravano – Rughetta del Ravano 1047
One of my favourite additions to the San Polo cicchetti scene, this bacaro is run by a group of younger Venetian gents and it has that edge of sass that I live for. First off, they play the best tunes in all of Venice – including VENETIAN REGGAE. You’ll notice the staff all wearing t-shirts that say ‘bevi e tasi’, literally Venetian for ‘drink and shut up’. I can assure you that you will be shut up, with inventive cicchetti including my favourite – mortadella and pistachio pesto on the tastiest dark brown bread. The guys here make a mean Select spritz, I think I had about five in a row. As an added bonus, there is plentiful seating here for a bacaro which means you can relax and enjoy the music and the Venetian vibes. Make sure to leave the guys a nice tip in their tattoo fund jar on the counter!

Select spritz heaven.

Ostaria dai Zemei – Ruga Rialto, 1045/B
Run by twins Franco and Giovanni, this tiny bàcaro is a haven for foodies. The cicchetti varies from classic to inventive, and everything is top quality. Strewn about the bar are various photographs of the twins from childhood, along with images of other pairs of twins who’ve stopped in. I always get some of their tiny bite-sized sandwiches – I’m not sure who their supplier is but the salami, prosciutto, etc is divine! If you can handle the heat, they do some seriously good spicy cicchetti as well.

Picture perfect cicchetti.

Cin Cin!

Did I manage to forget your favourite bàcaro? Forgive me, and leave a comment! I’d love to try it out next time. That’s the beauty of Venice… no matter how many times you’ve been, there are always so many places you’ve still yet to discover.

Ciao for now,
Courtney

 

 

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