Some say cicchetti, quintessential Venetian bite-sized foods, can be likened to Spanish tapas, and the reasoning isn’t really all that far off. The Venetian culture is speckled with Spanish influences due to their strategic position on the trade route that Spain famously frequented. Even the Venetian dialects reflect certain trademark Spanish sounds, such as the English “y” sound for the double “l” (in certain parts of the Veneto if you are pretty you are not bella, you are beya) and various links can be drawn between the two cuisines. But even though the tapas-like dish of cicchetti may resemble and perhaps even have some roots in Spanish small plates, today they hold a strong Venetian tradition of their own.
Walking through Venice around five or six o’clock in the evening, it is impossible not to feel a magnetic attraction towards the many small, seemingly hole-in-the-wall bars where clusters of animated Italians are gathered, clutching their small glasses of wine. Not quite an enoteca and too small-plate focused to be called an osteria, these trademark tiny shops are called bàcari and are uniquely Venetian.
Giving way to the magnetic pull and entering one of the bàcari, you will find two staple offerings: bevande, or drinks, and cicchetti. The former would seem self-explanatory, but like all things Venetian, the city has placed its own elegant twist on a simple glass of wine. Instead of the usual bicchierie da vino you might order in Rome, bàcari-goers order an ombra when they’re craving a glass of wine. Literally meaning shadow, ombra’s origins are still being debated. Some say the name is in reference to the shadowy corners from which wine was once sold in the small calle running through the mystical city. Others swear that the word ombra come from the long shadow that the wine glass makes at the time you drink it around five or six o’clock in the evening.
While ombra only refers to wines, another popular Venetian cocktail , especially with the younger generations is the orange-colored Spritz. A refreshing choice for an evening happy hour, the Spritz is a splash of bitter liqueur such as Campari mixed with a bit of Prosecco and garnished with an orange slice.
Whether you opt for the ombra or the Spritz, the real Venetian taste comes with cicchetti that are eaten with the drinks at the bàcari. Originally comprised of foods such as olives or prosciutto-wrapped cheese, the pieces now range in type and creativity as chefs do what they always have in Venice: fuse the cuisine of those who pass through. This has only been natural, for as the ruling center of the affluent and powerful Venetian empire for over half a millennium before rising to be the cultural Mecca of wealth, luxury, and debauchery, Venice has never been stranger to influence. These days, cicchteti include small croquettes, bits of fish or octopus, vegetables, cheeses, and several other delicious morsels. Unlike tapas, which are served on a plate, you’ll find cicchetti at the bar, many with toothpicks already in place and ready for individual purchase. One by one, you pay for your bites of dinner – a bit unnecessary some might think, but as Voltaire once said, “The superfluous, a very necessary thing.” If he’d have been Italian, he would have added, “especially in Venice.”
Have you ever enjoyed any of these Venetian delicacies? What did you think?