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Avoid leaving Venice with a bitter taste in your mouth; forget overpriced restaurants, and look for Venice’s real culinary tradition in its local, cheap cicchetti bars.
To experience Venetian cuisine beyond pasta and pizza, head to one of the city’s bacari (traditional bars) in search of snacks known as cicchetti. From behind glass counters, bartenders serve up a dazzling collection of small bites, which range from the classic tramezzino, a little white bread sandwich, to fresh seafood concoctions using ingredients from the Rialto Fish Market. The Roman Guy, whose Italy-wide tours include the Venice Food Tour, leads Culture Trip to the best of these diminutive, hidden bars where Venice’s most authentic food can be found.
Many bacari were, and still remain, local working-class establishments that stay loyal to their Venetian clientele’s expectations. The Roman Guy’s Venice Food Tour begins with one of these traditional bacari, located in the area of the Rialto food markets. Al Mercà still functions as a pit stop between shopping for a quick drink and a nibble, emphasised by the lack of seating or even indoor area. Instead, clients mill around in the square in front, balancing their cicchetti on paper napkins. Here, The Roman Guy recommends opting for a Spritz, a combination of prosecco, soda water, and a choice of bitters including Aperol, Campari, or Venice’s own Select.
Instead of pandering to tourists with menu deals and internationally friendly dishes, bacari often serve up Venetian specialties so recognisable to regular clients that they don’t need labelling. This means, of course, that ordering can be a bit tricky if you’re not a local – but haphazardly pointing at tempting-looking dishes on the counter often results in discovering a whole new world of mysterious culinary delights. At Cantina Do Spade, which the Roman Guy describes as another of the “few old-style bacari” in the city, try putting your food and drink choices in the hands of the bartenders. As The Roman Guy says, it serves all the “delicious cicchetti you can imagine, including fried calamari, stuffed zucchini flowers, and liver pâté,” and the Venetian bartenders certainly know what’s best.
Due to the growing tourist interest in the tradition, new bacari are popping up all over the city. Most have moulded themselves in the image of the traditional bar, with a few modern tweaks. El Magazen, for example, serves classic Venetian cicchetti, including sarde in saor, fried sardines marinated with onions and sultanas, or more adventurous combinations like prosciutto and figs. It is also an advocate for other local crafts through its passion for upcycling – the wooden bar stools, for example, are made from pieces of discarded bricole (the wooden poles that are planted in the lagoon).
The Roman Guy ensures visitors get a taste of both tradition and modernity in their tour, by following up their stop in the Rialto markets with refreshments at Ai DiVini in the Cannaregio sestiere (district). Although they have adopted a classic wood-beam and exposed-brick look for the interior, their cicchetti are far from ordinary. Great hunks of prosciutto decorating the counter should sway you to their meat and cheese platter, while fish lovers can find octopus, baccalà, and even raw prawns. As the word play in their name suggests, their wines are also heavenly.