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.
For half a millennium or so, Venice dominated Europe’s international commerce, so it should come as no surprise that two modern financial instruments originated here: the bancarotta (bankruptcy”—“broken bench,” literally) and the bancogiro, bank transfer (named for the world’s first publicly funded bank, founded in Venice in 1587). A lengthy introduction to one of the most scenic barcari in Venice. Housed in a former vegetable depot, Bancogiro is part wine bar and part osteria (restaurant). Unlike most bacari, there’s outdoor seating on a wide terrace situated directly on the Grand Canal. (At lunch and dinner time, these tables are reserved for people who order a full meal, so arrive early.) If the water were any closer, you’d have to dine in a gondola (more on that in a minute).
Here, too, seafood figures prominently, from a luscious crostino of piovra, lardo e melanzana (octopus, lardo and eggplant) to Bancogiro’s signature ricotta salata con gamberi al curry (salted ricotta and curried shrimp over a rectangle of creamy squid ink polenta) — the latter popular with the gluten-free crowd. If salume is your thing, you’ll find artisanal mortadella from Bologna dotted with toasted sweet pistachios, and crostini carpeted with lacy coppa (shoulder ham) cured with Amarone wine.
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
ImageThe cicchetti at Basegò are made, variously, with mortadella, anchovies and salame.CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York TimesImageWine barrels serve as tables at Basegò, and the day’s wine selections are written on a blackboard.CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times
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.
ImageBar 5000 has a 120-bottle wine list, including organic, biodynamic and vegan selections.CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York TimesImageThere are six to eight types of cicchetti in Bar 5000’s showcase daily, with ingredients like mortadella, goat cheese and pistachio.CreditAndrea Wyner for The New York Times
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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