For hundreds of years the Venetians were the driving force of the Adriatic, conquerors, sailors, adventurers and philanthropists, benefactors of the arts and builders of palaces. This is a proud city that revels in it’s own dialect whilst making the most of the tourist dollar. Although, tucked away in the back streets of the working class areas of Venice are the Bàcari, eschewing the easy money and serving the diminishing inhabitants of real Venice with Cicchetti and ombre.
A pale sun was breaking through the clouds, the pavement still dotted with puddles and Mr Glam and I looked at each other hoping that this time we’d stay dry. Venice is difficult to negotiate in the rain, the narrow alleyways causing constant clashes of brollies. Gathered around the carved marble well head, in a square bordered on two sides with small canals and the cliched washing, our guide explained about our Cicchetti Tour (like tapas), a giro di ombre – bar crawl. It was to be a tasting of the best that each Bacari (bar) had to offer, their specialities accompanied by an ombre – glass of wine, which would be local, wherever possible.
Our first stop, not a Bàcaro, was the fish market, a few streets away from the Rialto Bridge on the other side of the Grand Canal from St Marks and the tourist hoards. Fresh seafood of every kind and a Venetian favourite, Bacalà, dried cod, all sold under a carved vaulted colonnade. If you arrive at 7-7.30 am you can see the boats unloading the catch and the stall holders setting up for the day. Baby sharks, skinned and lined up, with their downward turned mouths making them look startled at their fate. Bulbous octopus, gently weaving in and out of each other on the slab. Piles of red mullet, shiny eyed and glistening pink in the ice shavings. Large nets of scallops patterned with barnacles and shedding ocean sand. Rose coloured spider crabs and blush pink prawns tumbled into boxes, an abundance of sweetness. All of which are used by the Bàcari owners.
In a narrow alley behind the teeming market is Cantina Do Spade, a small dark bar with tables down one side, swarming with shoppers, both inside and out. Stopping off for a snack and a glass of wine after the rigours of the market. Crammed round a scarred wooden table, we ate zucchini flowers stuffed with baccalà montecato, (whipped cod fish) creamy and fresh, deep fried to a golden brown. Next came skewers of crispy breadcrumbed veal stuffed olives, savoury and delicious. followed by light and puffy little deep fried sandwiches in a tempura type batter – ham and mozzarella and tomato with mozzarella, all washed down with a local prosecco. A moment to take in the atmosphere after the food and then it was time to move on.
Just a few steps away was Antico Dola, a doorway that you could easily miss. There weren’t hoards of people outside here, but this simple Osteria appears in the Michelin guide and so booking is essential. The cicchetti tasting was based around polenta. The neat yellow squares were generously piled with Sarde in soar – sweet and sour sardines made with raisins, white wine, pine nuts and onions. Thick cut wedges of creamy gorgonzola dolce or calamari in a rich tomato and garlic sauce. The warm polenta taking the place of bread in a bruschetta. Another gulp of wine and we were on to our next bàcaro.
You could hear All’ Arco before you could see it in the narrow street. The throngs of Venetians laughing and chatting outside, sipping wine and swopping cicchetti, made a very lively atmosphere in the sottoporteggi (tunnels). The cicchetti at All’ Arco are some of both the most traditional and with three generations of the same family working here, the most innovative. The grandson proudly produces new daily creations. There were only a couple of tables outside and as it is predominantly, a standing up venue.
We too chatted whilst taking in the carved stonework above our heads. Delicious platters of bruschetta appeared, sweet roasted vegetables laid over soft cheese, large circular slices of guanciale generously folded onto crisp bruschetta and a fragrant, earthy truffle and mushroom home made cheese, all accompanied by rich red wine.
Our final stop, by now we were both quite full and a little light headed, was Sacre e Profano. Set on the corner of two alleyways dark enough to need the outside lights lit in the middle of a spring afternoon. The bars were quieter than when we’d begun, but busy remaking the cicchetti, always fresh, for that nights aperrativi hoards. We had the wonderful stuffed olives again and the mini battered sandwiches which, I thought, were better at Cantina Do Spade.
But here we had Polpette, little meatballs three to a skewer, crisp on the outside and soft and juicy inside with just a hint of the parmesan used in the beef mixture. Wonderful with our ombre of red.
Just as I had declared to Mr Glam that, that was it, I could eat no more, a dessert wine and Canale or Esse biscuits were brought out. The name is for the shape, wavy like the Grand Canal, ‘S’ shaped as in esse. Either way they are eaten like cantucci biscuits, dipped in sweet wine. Not as hard as cantucci, made from eggs, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest, they were a delicious finale to our tour.
We had spent the day in the relative quiet of real Venice, there were plenty of people around, but not those with the determined grimace of the need to ‘do’ Venice in a day. Rather the need to slow down, relax, enjoy a snack and chat with friend before going about their daily routines. This is the way to see and eat Venice, don’t be drawn in by the plastic pizzas on the Front. Venture down the Sottoporteggi and find a Bàcaro to call your own.
Cantino Do Spade – Calle Do Spade, San Polo859/860 Venezia
Antico Dolo – Ruga Rialto, San Polo 778, Venezia
All’ Arco – Calle de L’Ochialer, SanPolo 436, Venezia
Osteria Al Sacre e Profane – Sottoportego Ramo Terzo Del Parangon, San Polo 502, Venezia