Feeling a bit peckish before your fashionably late dinner reservation in Venice? Don't feel hungry enough to chow down on a formal meal?
Well then, do what Venetians do, head out to a bacaro, which is a wine bar, for some small, tantalizing bites or cicchetti of traditional Venetian fare, and an ombra or glass of local wine. Learn more about the concept behind bacari, cicchetti plates offered, and the origin of ombras. Find out which are some of the best bacari to visit while in Venice.
History of Bàcari and Cicchetti in Venice
In the 1300s there were more than 20 bacari (small wine bars) surrounding Venice's Rialto Bridge. By adding small nibbles, barkeeps would keep people drinking for a bit longer. Eventually, these wine bars got a rather tawdry reputation and went out of style.
But just like everything that was once old that becomes new again—eating small courses of cicchetti has become fashionable like the evolution of tapas in Spain. The cicchetti have gotten a gourmet makeover and the wines have started to flow again—a whole new era has begun. Today, eating cicchetti in Venice, mostly seafood-based, is practiced by tourists and locals alike.
How to Order Wine in a Bacaro
So you are in a bacaro, a wine bar. Naturally, you think you belly up to the bar and order a glass of wine, un bicchiere di vino. Yes, you can, but actually, what you really want to do is ask for an ombra.
"Un bicchiere di vino" will likely get you a glass of higher priced (not necessarily local) wine. Order an ombra and you will get a small glass of local wine. It will likely be quite inexpensive.
Ombra means "shade." The use of the word to define a glass of wine dates back to the days of wine merchants who used to set up shop in the Piazza San Marco, changing the location of their wares to follow the shade of the bell tower since the heat of the sun would ruin the wine. The name stuck, and a small glass of local wine in Venice remains an ombra.
How to Order Food in a Bacaro
The food you will find in a bacaro reflects the food you will find in a Venetian kitchen. Mostly, there is seafood in various forms. There will almost always be traditional staples like baccala mantecato, a creamy salted cod served over a wedge of polenta. You will also find baked cuttlefish or shrimp and even little meatballs.
Recently, Italians have become big fans of raw fish, the culinary world's newest sashimi makers. So, there will likely be raw fish as an option.
The food is usually laid out on large platters behind glass in shelves over the bar. You make your way to the bar (usually pushing your way through throngs of people) and order by pointing to what you would like. Each portion will likely cost you from 2 to 4 euros.
The Vecia Carbonera is a great bacaro to order some food and an ombra. The bar's name is a nod to the history of the location; it was once used for storing coal or carbone in Italian.
At Vecia Carbonera, you enter, place your order for food and drink, and then look for a seat in the back, where there are long, communal tables. Some folks spill out in front as well. They have a good selection of food, and the location is convenient. Cannaregio, a nice, working-class neighborhood, is a great place to find accommodations, too.
Venetian blogger Monica Cesarato says El Sbarlefo has the best baccala mantecato in town. It's hard to decide what to order between the meatball in tomato sauce, artichokes, polenta and herring, and the traditional sarde in saor, sardines in a sweet-sour onion sauce served cold.
It is a tiny place and crowded. You will have to fight your way through the crowd to order, and then jockey for a table outside like everybody else. A plate of food and drinks for three people will cost about 25 euros.
The lively La Cantina is known for its wine selection and the freshness of its fish. At this bacaro, you can get a good sampling of wines from the Veneto and beyond, and familiarize yourself with some raw branzino. After you are done there and if you find that you are still hungry, you can see if you can get a reservation at nearby Vini di Giglio, one of Venice's finest restaurants in a comfortable tavern space.