We’ve talked elsewhere about the varied cuisine of Veneto – the northern Italian region famous for its Prosecco production, spiced duck ragú and preference for rice and polenta over pasta. But in the side streets and back alleys of the region’s capital, Venice, an altogether different food culture exists – one that’s centred around a uniquely Venetian way of eating: cicchetti.
What is cicchetti?
Cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee) are snacks or small plates, traditionally served in bars (called bacari) throughout Venice. Indeed, the word cicchetti is said to come from the Latin ‘ciccus’ – which means ‘little’ or ‘nothing’. Within each bacaro, glass counters are piled high with these small bites, which are typically washed down with a similarly small glass of wine known as an ombra.
Sometimes called ‘Venetian tapas’, the cicchetti ritual is a vital aspect of daily life in Venice; from late morning until evening, Venetians pack into backstreet bacari to catch up, grab a bite and raise a glass (typically all while standing, rather than sitting), before heading off for their next appointment or moving on to another bàcaro to repeat the ritual. Many Venetians will also stop by a bacaro for an ombra and and a small cicchetto in the golden hour before work and dinner – a distinctly Venetian take on the classic Italian aperitivo ritual.
Typical cicchetti prices
Cicchetti – also spelled cichetti in parts of Italy and cichéti in the Venetian dialect – are priced in accordance with their diminutive size, with many bacaro offering snacks for just a couple of euros. This makes a cicchetti ‘crawl’ an affordable way to try a host of different dishes in a city that’s otherwise not known for its cheap eats.
Classic Venetian cicchetti
Depending on the bacaro, a cicchetti menu might include small snacks like crostini (little pieces of toasted bread with an array of different toppings) or panini (small sandwiches), as well as more substantial plates featuring meat or fresh fish from Venice’s lagoons. Whilst there’s plenty of variety, there are three iconic dishes that appear on nearly every bacaro menu:
Polpette is the Italian word for meatballs, normally dressed in tomato sauce and served as a secondo, or main course. In Venice, polpette can refer to balls of fried meat or fish, which are normally served as a cicchetto. Most bacaro menus will feature at least a couple of different polpette options, with some also offering vegetarian versions. Meat polpette are still typically served in a tomato sauce, but fish polpette are often served breaded and without a sauce.
There’s certainly no shortage of fresh fish in Venice, with the floating city surrounded by the rich pickings of the Laguna Veneta, but Venetians are also partial to a dried, salted fish that comes all the way from Norway. Known as stockfish in the Nordic region, or baccalà in Italian, the foodstuff is thought to have been popularised by a 15th-century Venetian trader who was shipwrecked on a Norwegian island; on his safe return to Venice, the trader helped to introduce the product to the locals. These days, dried salt cod is used to create one of the region’s favourite cicchetti: baccalà mantecato, which sees it simmered in milk then combined with olive oil to create a whipped condiment that’s either spread on crostini or dolloped onto slabs of pan-fried polenta.
Sarde in saor
Back in the world of fresh seafood with sarde in saor, one of Venice’s most popular dishes and maybe its most prized cicchetto. To make it, fresh sardines are fried in a little olive oil, before being doused in a sweet and sour combination of raisins and white wine vinegar. A topping of pine nuts adds some savoury crunch, with the contrasting flavours helping to balance the saltiness from the fish. Nowadays, this dish is all about the flavour, but the pairing of vinegar and sardines actually came about as a way of preserving fish in the days before refrigeration.
What to drink with cicchetti
As we’ve mentioned, the traditional drink pairing for cicchetti is an ombra – the Venetian word for a small glass of wine. The word ombra literally translates to mean ‘shade’ and the story goes that this morph in usage came from the days when Venetian wine merchants would sell their wares under the shade of the church tower in Venice's Saint Mark’s Square. The merchants would move their stalls with the shade in order to keep their wine cool, and thus ‘let’s get some shade’ slowly became synonymous with grabbing a glass of wine.Every Venetian bacaro will offer a varied selection of wines from the Veneto region, traditionally served by draft from a tap rather than a bottle. The fact these wines haven’t had to travel far or be bottled means that many bacaro offer an ombra for just a euro or two. All that said, Venetians aren’t sticklers for tradition, and these days many prefer a refreshing Aperol Spritz or a glass of Italian beer.