Made in the Shade – Eating and Drinking on the Cheap in Venice
Venice, Veneto, Italy
Want to eat a plate of fresh, Venetian fare washed down with sparking prosecco, all for under $10 in ethereal but exorbitantly priced Venice?
Then do what the Venetians do, and skip the restaurants that line Strada Nuova, the main drag connecting the train station and Europe’s largest drawing room, Piazza San Marco. The deceptively low set prices don’t include drinks or the mandatory coperto, the cover charge which in touristy Venice can add up to an additional 4 or 5 euro per head. Not to mention, the food is likely to be pale and watery imitations of the luxuriant fish sauces and handmade pastas that typify Venetian cuisine. Instead, check out one of Venice’s many bacari for a plate of cicheti and a half carafe of ombra, the house wine.
Ombra and cicheti are a Venetian institution. Ombra, literally translated, is shade, and in Venetian dialect refers to a glass of wine. Traditionally, when the gondolieri needed to take a break, and get out of the sun for a while, they would park their boats, find a spot of shade in which to relax and enjoy a refreshing glass of wine with their fellow rowers. The term lingers and today locals still nip into one of the numerous wood paneled, low ceilinged tavernas tucked away among the calle and campi of the city for their daily dose of ombra. A glass of house wine, usually a locally produced Soave or Prosecco, costs between one or two euro, or at the current rate of exchange, $1.50 to $3.00.
Cicheti are Venetian tapas. Given Venice’s status as a maritime republic, fish are the dominant ingredient. Typical cicheti include fried calamari and sardines; grilled octopus; seppia con nero; squid stewed in a rich sauce of its own ink; hot bubbly polenta, a hearty corn porridge, drizzled with baccala’ mantecato, a creamy spread made from chunks of fresh cod, garlic, and parsley, and polpetti; meatballs rolled in bread crumbs and baked to a crispy, savory crunch.
Cicheti provide a tasty and economical alternative to what can be an expensive sit-down meal. The ordering of – and consumption of – cichtti also provides a rare alternative to rub elbows with the locals. Cicheti and ombra are consumed while standing at the bar. From 12.30 to 2.30 in the afternoon and again during happy hour, which starts between 6:00 and 7:00 and can stretch until 10.00 or 11.00, Venetians fill these narrow bars to quaff a glass of ombra and snack on a plate of cicheti while they check in with one another, exchange gossip, and fulfill the rituals of community that have been continuously maintained over the centuries. It won’t take long before you find yourself practicing your halting Italian, or listening to the halting English of the smartly dressed Italian signore standing at your side.
There are scores of bacari throughout Venezia, but the following are some of my favorites:
Cantina del Vino gia Sciavi: At the foot of the Ponte San Trovaso, just off the Zattere in the Dorsodoro district, Schiavi doubles as a barcaria and an enoteca, so if you try a glass of wine you like, you can turn around and buy the bottle. Schiavi also offers an assortment of different chicheti all served on thick slices of French bread including generous slabs of cured fish and interesting vegetarian options like figs and wedges of parmesan cheese, and pomegranate and walnut paste. Each cichetti costs 1 euro.
Address: Fondamente Priuli, Dorsodoro, 922
Trattoria alla Rivetta: Close to the Riva degli Schiavoni that fronts the Doge’s Palace and the sumptuous Danieli Hotel, Trattoria alla Rivetta is close enough, and tasty enough that the gondoliers who work the Grand Canal in front of Piazza San Marco lunch here. Here the specialties are the fried calamari and sardines; crunchy, buttery, succulent morsels that melt as soon as they touch the tongue, and chunky cutlets of eggplant baked with pilchards, a local fish, mozzarella, fresh herbs, and tomatoes. The light and refreshing house white complements them perfectly.
Address: Ponte S. Provolo, San Marco, 4625. Closed Mondays.
Vedova: The Widow is an enchanting family run trattoria in the Cannaregio District. Glass lamps covered with Burano lace dangle gracefully over wooden tables. There is no menu. Everything is prepared fresh that day. A plate of homemade spaghetti stewed in squid and ink sprinkled with fresh parsley only costs 7 euro. But Vedova is hardly a secret and fills up quickly in the evening. Therefore, if you can’t secure a table, opt to stand at the bar and munch on some of the best chicheti in Venice. Vedova specializes in fish, and everything I’ve ever sampled there is sublime, but the mussels baked with garlic, tomato, and parmesan cheese are not to be missed.
Address: Calle del Pistor, Cannaregio, 3912. Closed Thursdays and Sundays. Hours: 12-2:30 and 7:30-10:30
Bomba: Bomba sits at the back of a small narrow vicolo, or alleyway, that stretches off the Strada Nuova in the Cannaregio district. A long glass bar houses dozens of platters of vegetarian, meat, and fish options. La Bomba offers up palm-sized artichoke hearts; grilled zucchini; an assortment of bite-sized fried fritters of fish, meat or vegetables; and the creamiest, most flavorful baccala’ mantecato in Venice. La Bomba takes seriously the pursuit of good tippling, as evidenced by a sign hung above the bar that reads, “E’ meglio d’essere un bevuto noto che un alcolico anonimo.” It’s better to be a noted alcoholic than an anonymous alcoholic. Cheers to that.
Address: Calle de L’oca, Cannaregio, 4297B. Open every day from 11-3, and 6-11.