Venice is infamous for its terrible tourist food. For good reason. Tourism drives the city, with just 60,000 residents who support over 10 million visitors per year. Visitors are the city’s lifeblood, so feed the people what they want to eat, it goes.
As you read about Venice, you’ll inevitably learn of the menu turistico that has overrun the city. This is a prix fixe three-course menu that costs around 13-20 Euro per person. The menu is made up of staples that Venice has come to learn tourists look for in “Italian food” — lasagne, spaghetti and meatballs, caprese salad, fritto misto, tiramisu… and so on.
Aside: Save your pizza eating for Napoli. Wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza (the black-speckle-bottomed pie of dreams that’s become famous in North American cities) is a no-go in Venice, as wood ovens are strictly outlawed due to fire regulations on her tiny, cramped islands.
We remained convinced that the menu turistico couldn’t be the only way. In a city as majestic and cultured as Venice, there had to be some stellar restaurants lurking in her corners. This hunch led us to a strange little word: cicchetti (or: cicheti, cichetti). In posts and articles I read about avoiding the menu turistico for something more delicious, people would write of Venice’s answer to Spanish tapas, something that the local sailors and fishermen have been eating for hundreds of years. If we were in search of delicious eats, cicchetti were it.
So, what are cicchetti?
As shorthand, “Venetian tapas” is a pretty good place to start. Think of foods like stuffed olives, creamed baccala (salt cod) on toast, braised octopus, steamed artichoke bottoms — tapas in size and concept, but Italian in ingredients and cooking.
Cicchetti are one or two bite snacks are ordered at a bacaro — a small stand-up wine bar, so named for the shaded areas where wine is stored. You might hop bacaro to bacaro for a glass of prosecco and a couple pieces of cicchetti, then move to your next stop, making a dinner of it as you go.
Our Venice Cicchetti Crawl
Here’s the cicchetti crawl we developed on a recent trip to Venice — based on “must visit spots” we read about, plus cantinas and bacari we stumbled into because their window offerings looked so good. All of these places are within spitting distance of one-another.
A Few Tips
Begin at the Rialto Market
The best cicchetti spots in Venice are located in its back alleyways close to the Rialto Market and away from the bustling tourist sites. You can roam this ‘hood and be sure to find dozens of solid options.
Spot a Bacaro/Cantina
Look in the window for a long bar with a dozen or so plates of pre-made little bites. Some bars are full-service restaurants, too, so don’t be dissuaded if you see a full menu. It’s perfectly reasonable (encouraged) to walk in and peek at the bar to see what morsels are on offer.
Place an Order
Stand at the bar and point to things — the server will assemble you a plate on the spot. (You’re likely not going to know what most of the cicchetti are called… and that’s part of the fun.) Settle your tab on the spot. Order drinks and food, pay, and go stand somewhere else.
Budget 3 Euro per drink and 1-3 Euro per cicchetti, depending on its complexity. An evening stuffing two people silly (think, 20 different cichetti and 4 drinks per) will run you about 50 Euro.
Cicchetti are meant to be eaten standing up at the bar, and taking a seat will mean you pay higher prices, as with everything in Venice.
Our Top 5 Spots
Do Mori is a Venetian institution for really great cicchetti — in fact, it came up in nearly every article we read and claims to be the oldest bacaro in Venice. You will be fighting the locals for a spot at the bar. Just jostle your way to the front and order, but get the heck out of the way for the next guy, moving down the bar. There’s a stellar and value-priced wine list — I had an unusual Prosecco produced especially for Do Mori made of glera (Prosecco’s standard grape) blended with 20% chardonnay.
Standout cicchetti: braised baby octopus; melt-in-your-mouth artichoke bottoms; pickled cipollini onion speared with fresh anchovy
Visit the osteria Naranzaria for their tasty bread-based cichetti and wash them down with cheap house Prosecco. We were obsessed with all the unusual and delicious toppings Naranzaria put on bread!
Standout cicchetti: braised bitter greens with cured fish roe; cured fish and pesto; smoked whitefish slivers with lime
Al Merca is just a counter with a window where you grab your wine and bites and then stand in the square to eat. We had both a killer Soave and Friulano here that paired fantastically with their flavourful little sandwiches and meatballs.
Standout cicchetti (all sandwiches): truffle cream with proscuitto; sopresatta with fresh mozzarella
Everything at Cantina do Spade was cheap and delicious, and the wine was plentiful. I’m still dreaming of the veal-stuffed green olives. This is the cicchetti bar where you should stick to fried foods. They just did it all so well. As a nice touch, the warm bites come served over a little heap of white polenta.
Standout cicchetti: anything fried! Veal-stuffed green olives; carozza (sandwich) stuffed with fresh mozzarella and red pepper; perfectly fried calamari
Ancora, a modern full-service bar, serves up some of the simplest, most flavourful bites. Take advantage of a seasoned bartender and wash everything down with an expertly-made Aperol Spritz.
Standout cicchetti: stratiacella and olive oil on toast; beef tartare with parsley and chopped olives