When in Venice, Eat Like a Venetian

Each year, 20 million tourists visit Venice. The vast majority will pay too much for indifferent food eaten mostly in the company of other tourists. But there’s one way to eat great Venetian food that’s thrilling, filling and authentic. You’ll find it at a place where you’re almost certain to rub and bend elbows with locals. Visit a bacarò.

Like Spain’s tapas bars, the bacarò serves infinitely varied, kaleidoscopically colorful small plates at prices even a budget traveler can afford. What makes the Venetian version unique is that the menu changes not only seasonally (you’re in Italy after all), but day by day and hour by hour.

Venetians call these small plates cicchetti (pronounced “chi-KET-tee”) — said to derive from the Latin “ciccus,” meaning “little” or “nothing.” The term embraces a broad range of dishes: polpette (fried meatballs), crostini (small open-faced sandwiches), panini (small sandwiches on crusty rolls), tramezzini (triangular white bread sandwiches) — and a scintillating array of pickled, baked, stuffed or sauced seafoods and vegetables.

You find cicchetti at a bacarò (wine bar), but also at a botegòn, cantina, cicchetteria, oenoteca and osteria — confused yet? And likely at your neighborhood bar. Depending on whom you ask, bacarò comes from the Venetian word for “wine” or “a good bar,” or even from the ancient Roman god of wine, Bacchus.

Venetians eat cicchetti for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight snack — mostly with their fingers. It’s look-and-point food: no special mastery of Italian required. And you don’t need to wait to be seated to enjoy it. (That’s not even an option at some bacari.) Cichetti are cheap, costing on average a couple of euros — or dollars, for that matter — apiece (a bit more for more substantial seafood or meat cichetti). Six to eight make a meal, and the local wines served by the glass are affordable, too. There are few ways more delectable or fun to get to know La Serenissima than by embarking on a bar crawl. Here are some of my favorites.

Let Jiro dream of sushi. Alessandra De Respinis dreams of cicchetti. The septuagenarian owner of this hobbit-size bacarò in the artsy Dorsoduro District turns out these diminutive open-faced sandwiches by the hundreds. And she constantly invents new ones, like a cicchetto di castagna that plays the earthy sweetness of chestnut purée against the creamy funk of robiola cheese. Or her gamberi in saór — a shrimp riff on classic Venetian sweet and sour sardines piled on a crusty slice of baguette.

“My customers would revolt if I stopped serving the tartare di tonno,” said Ms. De Respinis of her caper- and brandy-laced chopped tuna dusted with unsweetened cocoa powder. That surprising combination won her a prize at a culinary contest in Mexico City. But Ms. De Respinis is no globe-trotting chef: day in, day out, you’ll find her behind the bar, white hair swept back, striped apron tied around her waist, with a gold fork pinned to her blouse — a gift from a customer in homage to her preferred cooking utensil. On a given day, Già Schiavi serves 25 wines — mostly from the Veneto — by the glass. I’m partial to the minerally white Orto di Venezia St. Venissa, grown on the nearby island of Mazzorbo. Just don’t expect to enjoy it sitting down. As Ms. De Respinis cautioned about a meal at her cantina: “Si consume, si bebe et si paga a piedi.” (“You eat, drink and pay standing up.”)

La Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, Dorsoduro 992, Fondamenta Nani; www.cantinaschiavi.com

Mateo Pinto grates a fresh horseradish root so hard, you can hear it rasp as the fiery shreds fall on bread slices topped with pink slices of ham and caramelized onions. His father, Francesco Pinto, pours an ombra (“shadow,” literally — glass of wine in local parlance) for a Rialto fish merchant speaking Veneziano (a dialect quite distinct from Italian) with a woman rocking a child in a baby carriage. If the Piazza San Marco is Europe’s drawing room (to quote Napoleon), All’Arco is its neighborhood tavern. Situated in a maze of alleyways behind the Rialto fish market, this has been a bacarò for more than a century, explains All’Arco founder Francesco Pinto, who took over the one-room bar in 1996. He started with a dozen cicchetti — classic porchetta sandwiches, for example, and crostini smeared with gorgonzola and anchovies.

Today, you’ll find more than 30 in an ever-changing repertory of hundreds. “We make our crostini by the minute, not by the hour,” explained Mateo Pinto. “The freshness must be apparent in each bite.” You don’t get much fresher than the season’s first canocchie, supernaturally sweet mantis shrimp fresh from the Lagoon, served atop tiny arugula leaves and tomatoes. In the winter, you’ll find heavier fare, such as veal stracotto (stew) — piled on a crusty roll, like some Venetian version of pulled pork. All’Arco takes its name from the ancient stone arch facing the bar — said to symbolize the matrimonial union of two neighboring households centuries ago. The bacarò fills quickly, so customers spill out to small tables lining the sidewalk. The ambience is joyous and jovial — the perfect embodiment of a Venetian institution designed not only to slake your thirst and assuage your appetite, but also to build your sense of community. “We’ve lost so much of our city,” Mr. Pinto said. “This is one of the places where Venetians come to feel Venetian.”

All’Arco, San Polo 436, Calle de l’Ochialer; 011-39-041-520-5666.

Squero refers to a boatyard where gondolas are built or repaired. This appropriately named osteria faces the Squero San Trovaso — one of the last such working boatyards in Venice. Founded by two brothers (Alessandro Vio runs the front of the house; Cristiano makes the cicchetti), Al Squero draws an animated crowd of art students from the nearby Academia Museum and tourists from around the planet. Wine bottles line the walls and cicchetti sparkle in the showcase.

Of course, they serve the ubiquitous baccalà mantecata (salt cod simmered in milk and whipped with oil to a snowy mousse) and sarde in saór (sweet and sour sardines). But you’ll also find such decidedly untraditional cicchetti as tissue-thin slices of lardo perfumed with honey, rosemary and pink peppercorns, and crostini heaped with roasted pumpkin, porcini and ricotta. There are meatless polpette for vegetarians, and in a nod to the ecological concerns of young Venetians, the cicchetti come on biodegradable plates. The Vio brothers specialize in wines from northern Italy, including a particularly refreshing J. Hoffstatter Gewürztraminer from the Alto Adige.

They’ve also upscaled Venice’s indispensable cocktail, the spritz, here made with your choice of electric orange Aperol, ruby red Campari, or bracingly bitter artichoke-based Cynar. If you really want to seem in the know, order a mezzo e mezzo — prepared with half Aperol and half Campari. All come festooned with a salty olive on a skewer instead of the traditional orange slice.

Osteria al Squero, Dorsoduro 943/944, Fondamenta Nani; osteriaalsquero.wordpress.com

To embark on a cicchetti crawl in Venice without trying Do Spade’s polpetta di spianata calabra would be like visiting San Marco and overlooking the basilica. It’s a meatball, but, oh, what a meatball: fiery Calabrian sausage mashed with smoked provoletta cheese and potatoes, and lightly breaded and fried. “We wanted to open a cicchetteria that serves more than open-faced sandwiches,” explained Francesco Munarini, a former bank executive who opened Do Spade a decade ago with his wife, Pilar, and sister, Giovanna. (The storefront has housed an osteria since 1488.) Inspired by the Rialto fish market nearby, the Munarini family decided to specialize in seafood seasoned with the big-flavored spices that made the fortunes of Venetian traders for centuries.

In quick succession, I downed calamari ripieni (tender squid stuffed with olives and bread crumbs), fiori de zucca farciti con baccalà mantecato (fried squash flowers filled with creamed codfish), moscardini in umido (stewed baby octopus), la buzara (scampi simmered in ginger- and pepper-piqued tomato sauce) and what may well be the best sarde in saór in Venice. The local-leaning wine list is ecumenical enough to include bottles from Istria, now part of Croatia, but which belonged to Italy before World War II. Recognizable by the crossed sabers in the window and spillover crowds in the alleyway, Do Spade (“Two Swords”) offers seating in a warren of simply decorated blue rooms, but most customers prefer to eat standing by the open kitchen or in the street.

Cantino Do Spade, San Polo 859, Calle do Spade; cantinadospade.com

On any given day, Bancogiro offers 17 wines by the glass, including a house white blended from Garganega and Durella grapes. After your meal, follow the signs to the nearby Traghetto San Sofia for a ride on what I call a poor man’s gondola. Two euros gets you on an oversize gondola across the Grand Canal in the company of Venetians with their market bags. Gentlemen take note: It’s considered good manners for the male passengers to remain standing.

Osteria Bancogiro, San Polo 122, Campo San Giacometto; www.osteriabancogiro.it

Like most Venetians, Tobia Lenarda deplores mass tourism. So the one-time conservatory pianist, recognizable by his salt-and-pepper beard and red sneakers, chose a singular way to fight back: He opened a new-school bacarò. “I toured the tapas bars in Spain and Portugal to get ideas,” he said. “I researched sushi and Mexican street food.” He called his venture Basegò, the Venetian dialect word for basil. “It’s clean, it’s bright, it’s fresh — just like basil,” he said. Basegò doesn’t look like your typical bacarò, not with pin spots casting a discrete light on clean walls of exposed brick, natural wood and white plaster. Wine barrels and wall shelves serve as tables, with the day’s selection of wines written on a blackboard. The cicchetti are as fresh as the décor. Tonno afumicato (smoked tuna) comes with avocado “mayonnaise.” (“Think of it as Venetian guacamole,” said Mr. Lenarda.) Wasabi lights up a salmon cicchetto. Gorgonzola comes with balsamic vinegar-marinated strawberries.

Equal care goes into Basegò’s wines. “We try to work with viticulturi heroici (heroic vintners), who grow varieties and make wines no one bothers with any more.” One such wine, Calzo della Vignia, comes from Giglio Island in Tuscany. “The hills are so steep, they have to harvest the grapes on foot and by hand,” Mr. Lenarda said. The result: a golden wine with an earth taste so rich, you can almost chew it. Mr. Lenarda summed up his view of customer service this way: “If you treat you customers politely — and that includes tourists — they pay you back with courtesy.” He thinks for a minute and paraphrases John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what Venice can do for you. Ask what you can do for Venice.” The philosophy earns high praise from the locals. The morning I was there, the only languages I heard were Italian and Venetian.

Basegò, San Polo 2863, Calle del Scaleter; 011-39-041-850-0299.

Bacari specialize in wine, of course, and Bar 5000 takes that mandate seriously, offering an impressive selection of vino bio, vino biodinámico and vino vegano. The first is organic wine (made from grapes grown without chemical fertilizers or fungicides), while the second are wines vinified without supplemental yeast or other additives. As for vegan wines, they’re clarified without gelatin, a fining agent derived from animal bones. And all three are available on a 120-bottle list at this new-school wine bar, located on the tranquil Campo San Severo in the Castello District near Piazza San Marco. Gone, the mosh pit crowds of the Rialto bacari. The clean modern interior runs to up-lit brick walls, polished concrete floors, and a chandelier blown by the Murano glass master Fabio Fornasier. Weather permitting, you can sit at one of a handful of tables along the quiet Severno canal.

When it comes to the cicchetti, Bar 5000 may lack the jaw-dropping variety of All’Arco or Già Schiave, but the six to eight daily selections in the showcase are thoughtfully chosen and well prepared. A plump salty sun-dried tomato crowns a crostino of sopressata cut paper-thin on a Berker meat slicer. Fresh oranges and mostarda (fruit jam) counterpoint a tiny wedge of Monte Veronese cheese. The pickles come from vegetables grown on Sant’Erasmo Island. “We bake our own bread daily,” said Micael Nordio. co-owner of Bar 5000. “We don’t have a freezer, so you know our food is fresh.” Twice a month, Bar 5000 stages wine dinners, often with live music. If you’re still hungry after the cicchetti, you can go for a proper meal at the sister restaurant, Luna Sentada, next door.

Bar 5000, Castello 5000, Campo San Severo; www.lunasentada.it

Steven Raichlen is a longtime food and travel journalist with an abiding passion for Italy. Two of the 32 books he has written are on Italian cooking, and he hosts “Steven Raichlen Grills Italy,” a television show on Gambero Rosso, the Italian food network.

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