In the whimsical Adriatic city of Venice, the citizens practice a wonderful little custom called the "giro di ombre" (the wheel of shade). It is not a custom of all Venetians, but mostly men and usually older men. However, this being said, you do not have to be a man to participate. You not have to be old. Anyone can do it, and in fact many younger Venetians (including women) are now caught up in this thing called the giro. Mostly though, you will see groups of men, three, five, or six, maybe more, one can even do it solo. I often go solo myself. Don't worry about being alone. You will make many friends along the way, for that's part of the "giro," making new friends, eating, imbibing, in general, having a great time.
What is this giro di ombre you ask? The giro di ombre is a splendid little ritual that began around venice's rialto market some 600 years ago. The merchants of the rialto market, wanting to take a little break from hawking their wares, would run to the nearest wine bar to get out of the sun and have a little nip of wine accompanied by little tidbits of food(cichetti) to go with the wine. When these merchants went to the wine bars, known as bacari, translating to "House of Bachus," they'd say they wanted a "Ombra," the Latin word for shade. They wanted to get out of the sun and into the shade. In time, a glass of wine in Venice became know as an "ombra." So if one day you have the good fortune to make it to one of Venice's many enchanting little wine-bars (bacaro), you belly up to the bar, order "un Ombra Rosso" if you want a glass of the house red, or "un ombra bianco" if you'd like a glass of white wine. It's as simple as that, and you are speaking in the wonderful venetian dialect. Like a true Venetian!
When you go into the wine-bars of Venice, you will undoubtedly see a tantalizing display of food attractively displayed in platters on the bar. These items of food are "Cichetti," tidbits of prepared food that come in very small portions so you can try three, four, five, maybe even six or more. The cichetti generally cost about $1.00-$2.50. They are made to be very affordable and are in small portions so people can order a few different items for variety.
What are the cichetti, you ask? Just what the Venetian dialect means, cichetti are small tidbits of food. There exist quite a good variety of items as far as cichetti are concerned. The most traditional and popular cichetti are; grilled shrimp or squid, braised or fried meatballs, Cotechino, Musetto (pigs snout sausage, "yum!"), nerveti, octopus salad, Bacala Mantecato (whipped salt-cod), and sarde en saour(sardines marinated with vinegar and onions). You might also find a nice array of small sandwiches (Panini & Tramezzini) that are filled with all sorts of tasty fillings such as crab salad, speck (smoked prosciutto), shrimp, ham with mushrooms and tomato, and much, much more. These sandwiches are also part of the Cichetti and are priced around $1.00 or two as well.
You might be thinking that cihetti are like Spanish tapas. "Yes," exactly. I might add that the venetians started this ritual a couple hundred years before the Spanish did, only the "Cichetti" of Venice never caught on all over the Italian peninsular the way that tapas did throughout Spain where tapas and tapas bars are a way of life.
So you go into the bacaro and order your ombra rosso or bianco. Survey the fabulous array of cichetti and order a few items of your choice. A typical sample plate of these marvelous little tidbits might go like this; a couple pieces of grilled squid, one sarde en saor, a crostino of baccala montecato (whipped salt cod), and maybe a couple fried meatballs. "Bon apetito!" All this should not cost you more than seven or eight dollars. In the happy days prior to the euro an ombra and a say four pieces of cichetti would cost you about $4.50, nowadays it will be almost double that. Unfortunately, that's life. Things change, never-the-less, it's still a pretty good deal.
So you've just had your first wonderful experience in a venetian wine-bar. What to do next? Go check out another one of course! Ask one of the locals for a suggestions or cross one off your own personal list. If you have one.
Ahh, you're at you second bacaro. Why not try one of Venice's most popular aperitifs? A "Spritz." A spritz is simply white wine with a splash of compari or aperol with soda and a twist of lemon. Quite refreshing. Very venetian. For those of you who love prosecco, you'll be happy to know that Venice is the "prosecco capital of the world" and you can order one in any bacaro. Save the Bellini's for harry's bar, and if you do, save your money as well, for at this point in time, a Bellini at the ultra chic harry's bar will cost you about $15 u.S. Dollars. They are absolutely delicious, but they go down like water.
Order a prosecco. Some nice treats to go with your venetian bubbly, would be a couple little crab tramezzini or one shrimp and one crab, both go perfectly with a crisp, fresh glass of local prosecco.
Besides the tasty food and splendid Italian wine, you will find wonderful atmosphere in venetian wine-bars. You'll meet and chat with locals as well as people who come to Venice from all around the world. The venetian bacaro, which incidentally translates to house of bacchus, bacchus, the roman god of wine.
Go to venice, engross yourself in its many bacari (bacaro is singular, bacari plural) and you are sure to be entranced in a true bacchanalia sort of way.
Suggested bacari (wine bars of Venice):
Al Volto: located on the calli cavalli, San Marco
A great old style bacaro, serving good inexpensive local wine, traditional cihetti, wonderful pasta, risotto, and fresh seafood from the Rialto Market.
Alla Vedova: cannaregio 3912, ramo ca'd'oro
Tucked in a small alleyway off the strada nuova, alla vedova is the authors pick for as one of Venice's best bacaro. Alla vedova has the quintessential bacaro décor and ambiance, they serve superb cichetti at the bar, which is always filled with fun loving regulars of the giro de ombre. This bar gets very crowded at times and you will have to vie for a spot at the bar for tasty baccala and the best fried meatballs in town. As you enjoy yourself at the bar while watching diners sitting at table in the lovely little dining-room, you may get the urge to sit down for a wonderful meal with some pasta, risotto, or calves liver venenziana. Do it!
All'Arco, san palo 436, calle dell'occhialer
this tiny little (14'x 8') wine-bar is one of Venice's most traditional. You will usually only find locals here, but they love to see the occasional foreigner drop in. They will welcome you with open arms, as they did to me when I stumbled upon this little establishment on my first ever "Giro de Ombar." You will find very traditional old style cichetti that not many place make any more, such as nerveti (nerve), tetina (cows udder), rumegal, and other funky items like Musetto (pigs snout sausage). These guys delight in turning novices on to the real deal. The close quarters are great, as they precipitate interaction between you and the locals who are very nice in this wonderful little "gem."
Do Mori, san palo 429, calle dei do mori
You might want to check out do mori as it is one of Venice's most historical wine-bars. However, you might be a little disappointed. I was, as the owners are cold and not very cordial. Their coldness pervades through the place, which is a shame as this place could be wonderful if only the proprietors did not posses the personalities of some "dead fish" lying around the Rialto Market. "Sorry fish, didn't mean to insult you." "Get my drift?"
Al Paradiso Perduto, on the Fondamenta Miscordia in Cannaregio
You know when you stubble across a place you have never been to before and go in to have one of the best times imaginable? That's what happened to me when I was on one of my typical exploratory walks around venice one fine sunday afternoon in april of 2001. I was walking by and saw that al paradiso was my kind of place; cool, old, with lots of character. The place was jumping with a very hip looking crowd. I sat down for a nice little lunch of antipasto misto and some Adriatic Sole. Halfway through my meal, I was more than pleasantly surprised when a jazz quartet set up on the fondumenta right outside the restaurant. There was a bass player, guitar, trumpet, and even a piano player who rolled his "baby grande" right up to the place. The band was exceptional. What a combination, Venice on a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon sitting at the Paradiso Perduto, drinking local wine, eating perfectly prepared Adriatic Soglio and listening to the lovely sounds of a great little jazz band playing beside the canal. "Who could possibly for more?" "Not me."
by Daniel Bellino-Zwicke
Creator of "BAR CICHETTI" America's First Venetian Wine Bar and author of La Tavola
Was AMERICA'S First VENETIAN WINE BAR
Dining Room alla Vedova
Bar alla Vedova
A Typical Array of CICHETTI
Chopping on CICHETTI
DRINKING WINE (Ombra)
At Cantina da Schiava
One of Venice's Best Wine Bars (Bacaro)
Demi Johns of Wine
at Do Mori, VENICE