Ask any Venetian to define cicchetti and you’ll get as many answers as there are variations of the tasty appetizers. In a city that moves on foot or by boat, munching on cicchetti while sipping a glass of wine called an ombra and chatting with friends at a bar called bacaro is a fundamental part of life in Venice.
Cicchetti can be anything from wriggling sea creatures impaled on toothpicks, and fried meatballs called polpette, to colorful toppings spread on slices of baguette called crostini — and that’s just to get you started. Traditionally you eat them standing at a bar, or just in front of the door. The ritual of having a drink and snack in a welcoming environment is the most important – this is not street food that you can eat while walking around the city.
Cicchetti is inexpensive, costing around €1 – €5 ($1.10 – $5.50) depending on the ingredients. Each cicchetto is as creative as the person who invents it, which makes making a giro de ombre — a bacarocrawl — a chance to taste the soul of Venice.
Like many Venetian traditions, the actual cicchetti that the locals consume has transformed over the decades, but the ritual remains the same. In Italian, the word “ombra” means shade or shade; “ombre” is the plural. Legend has it that centuries ago, vendors sold wine in St. Mark’s Square, in the shadow of the Campanile (the giant bell tower) using their carts to keep the wine cool. The result? The expression “un’ombra di vino” or “a shade of wine.”
Venetians don’t like to drink on an empty stomach, so “cichéti” was born, presumably from the Latin “ciccus” meaning “small amount”. The first offering was simple appetizers such as boiled octopus or a hard-boiled egg topped with an anchovy. Establishments called “bàcari” have evolved to serve ombre and cicchetti, said to be inspired by an ancient Venetian expression to “ver bàcara” or “celebrate” — a term that itself may have evolved from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and pleasure. .
In Rialto, the former headquarters of international trade at the foot of the world-famous bridge, merchants conducted their business in the shadow of the church of San Giacomo di Rialto (known locally as San Giacometo), next to Banco Giro, the current credit bank. Washed down with an ombra, cicchetti was a type of fast food eaten by merchants to do a quick business while standing on their feet when there was no time to lose. Or so the story goes.
Tuna and cocoa cicchetti
Stanley Tucci went in search of cicchetti in ‘Searching for Italy’.
When De Respinis’ father-in-law, Sisto Gastaldi, took over the bacaro in 1945, there were plenty of ombre, but the only cicchetti on offer were pickled onions containing anchovies, mortadella and green peppers, and hard-boiled eggs. De Respinis started working for Schiavi in 1970 after Sisto’s death and her husband, Lino Gastaldi, stepped into his father’s shoes. Expanding Schiavi’s cicchetti menu became her life’s mission, and she began to invent her own tasty appetizers to go with the glasses of wine.
The Respinis cut fresh, crispy baguettes into bite-sized pieces that you could eat with two fingers. Tuna and leek, and gorgonzola and walnuts topped her first creations. When she found her rhythm, her imagination was stimulated by seasonal ingredients. She experimented by mixing and matching colors and flavors and invented new cicchetti that were devoured by the locals.
De Respinis is now in her seventies and has a team of offspring to provide support, but she still works every day until noon. She has created some 70 different specialties, including her award-winning tartare di tonno e cacao: tuna mixed with egg yolk, capers, mayonnaise and parsley, sprinkled with bitter cocoa.
“My motto is to always serve fresh food,” says De Respinis. “Eventually we offer what’s left to the last customers, or eat it ourselves.”
‘Cicchetti was humble food’
Modern cicchetti – slices of baguette layered with toppings – are said to have been invented by Alessandra De Respinis.
“There are no more cicchetti in Venice!” thunders 73-year-old Franco Filippi. “The last real bacaro closed in 1980.”
Filippi is the owner of Libreria Editrice Filippi, a bookshop specializing in all things Venetian and the oldest publishing house in town. He can trace the roots of his family in Venice to the year 1340. He has no television and spent 40 years deciphering the ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’, that mysterious Renaissance book published in Venice in 1499 by Aldo Manuzio and for riddles created. great thinkers for centuries.
When it comes to cicchetti, Filippi is an old-fashioned purist. In fact, he recently published a book by Sandro Brandolisio entitled “Cichéti” (spelled in the Venetian way), featuring recipes prepared by the bacari in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Cicchetti was simple food made from spienza, the spleen or trippar rissa, tripe — no part of the animal was lost,” says Filippi. “It was prepared by the wife and sold by the husband and son. When we went on a giro de ombre, it was because Maria made the best meatball on Tuesday and Sofia the best octopus on Wednesday. But all those bacari are gone.”
Today there are hundreds of places to eat cicchetti dotted around Venice’s bacari and osterie, but Filippi is adamant. “Crostini — spreading a topping on a slice of bread — is not cicchetti!”
Where to eat (else) cicchetti
Today there are countless cicchetti on offer.
Meander through the calli on the western side of the Rialto Bridge, in the San Polo neighborhood, and you’ll come across several good bacari serving an assortment of cicchetti in different incarnations. Despite Filippi’s sayings, crostinis are ubiquitous, and it seems that Alessandra De Respini’s recipes at Schiavi have inspired many bacari to follow suit and decorate slices of baguette with creative inventions.
On the next street is the even older Cantina Do Mori, founded in 1462, which also claims Casanova as a former regular. Here you will find a local Venetian crowd and people doing business in the area with a touch of tourists, and no other seating than a handful of stools. The dark wood interior exudes antiquity and offers classic cicchetti and a good selection of wines.
According to tradition, Venice was born at 12 noon on March 25, 421 CE in Campo San Giacomo at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. Five bistros — Osteria Banco Giro, Ancòra, Osteria Al Pesador, Caffè Vergnano 1882 Rialto and Naranzaria — share the prime location as one large living room, where you can stand in the campo to feast on one side, or pay more to sit at a table and gaze at the Grand Canal on the other side. They all serve different variations of cicchetti. Transformed from a 17th-century bank to a 21st-century osteria, Banco Giro stands out for its fluffy homemade baccalà mantecato, a Venetian standard made from Norwegian stockfish, which is creamed and spread on crostini.
Michelin star cicchetti
Gourmet or from the bar, cicchetti is made with love.
From the shadow of the old Campanile, to the humble kitchens of the 1950s, to the inventive crostini of the 1970s, to the 21st-century ‘New Venetian Cuisine’, cicchetti are constantly evolving, but have one thing in common: they are made by Venetians with camaraderie and love.