I could honestly sit here typing for a week solid on everything I love about Venice, but I’d rather not have carpal tunnel syndrome in my early thirties. Instead, I’m going to settle for simply showcasing my favourite Venetian pastime – setting off on a (self-guided and marginally tipsy) bar crawl.
Get ready for the time of your life.
A Venetian bar crawl is the real deal, and it goes by many names. Rick Steves calls it “The Standup Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner”, which is perhaps the only thing ever written by Rick Steves that I’ve enjoyed reading. Venetians call it giro d’ombra (a wine stroll), and me? I call it a “bàcrawli”… but all of this will be explained in just a moment.
In Venice, far away from the crowds and tourist traps, there are dozens of little places called bàcari. Bàcari (singular: bàcaro) are small establishments that serve up drinks and little nibbles called cicchetti. Cicchetti could be described as Venetian tapas… although a Venetian would probably slap me for daring to say that. To shorten a long story, cicchetti are essentially just little bite sized offerings of fresh, seasonal deliciousness that you snack on so you don’t get super wasted. It’s usually less than €3 for a glass of prosecco and I’m about to tell you of places where a glass of wine goes for less than €1 so trust me, eat.
I truly believe that the most authentic cuisine and positively charming atmospheres in all of Venice are to be found in these little bàcari, and I’ve made it my mission to create the perfect crash course so you can do them, and yourself, justice.
Let’s start with food:
Cicchetti come in hundreds of forms, whether they be meat, fish, or veggie based. The following are just a few of the true Venetian classics –
* Little fried meatballs (polpette) of either beef (carne) or tuna (tonno).
* A little baby octopus (polpo) skewered by a toothpick. Morbid? Maybe. Delicious? Definitely.
* Sarde in saor – fried sardines sweet and sour style… usually with onions, vinegar, pine nuts, and raisins (I know it sounds truly vile, but trust me on this).
* Baccalà – incredible creamed salt cod, usually served on crostini or a slice of polenta.
* Mozzarella in carozza – fried mozzarella… a.k.a the unbeatable hangover cure. Sometimes also laced with proscuitto, even better.
There may also be tiny sandwiches or panino, various marinated vegetables, local cheeses, lashings of cured meats, or pretty much anything that’s able to fit on a piece of crostini.
In any case, a plate of 4 or 5 cicchetti should only set you back about €8.
Thirsty? Me too. This is what you should be drinking:
Oh, Italian wine. I could happily drown in you… many a time I almost have. The Italian region of Veneto (of which Venice is the capitol) produces some stunning wines. For red, you really can’t beat a good Amarone. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. If you prefer a lighter red, Bardolino is always a safe bet. For white, Soave and Pinot Grigio are your friends. If you like super sweet wines (weirdo), ask for a glass of Fragolino. Servings of wine are often listed at bàcari as ombra, which actually means shade in Venetian. The name comes from old-timey Venice where a wine merchant would sell vino from a little cart in Piazza San Marco. To keep the wine from spoiling, he’d move throughout the day in line with the shadow of St. Mark’s Campanile. If you’re swooning from the charm of it all, I’m not even done with you yet.
This sparkling white wine is produced exclusively in two regions of Italy, and the Veneto region is one of them. Prosecco is sometimes spoken of as a cheaper alternative to champagne, but we all know the French are snobby bastards so give it a try and decide for yourself. Prosecco is made from entirely different grapes and fermented differently than champagne, and I find prosecco to be much more approachable and refreshing. Read: easy to swill in the summer sun.
This vibrantly coloured classic cocktail consists of an Italian bitter liqueur paired with either prosecco, prosecco and soda water, or white wine and soda water. I have yet to crack which combination is the most authentic as everyone seems to disagree, but the more important question is which bitter to choose. You can go for Campari (strong flavour and pretty high on the alcohol content – not recommended for amateurs), Aperol (a sweeter, lighter bitter and my personal favourite), or the notably less common Cynar (made from artichokes, a bit pungent but definitely worth a try).
* If you really want to, you can have a bellini… but they tend to only be found in places catering to tourists (and they usually cost a fortune). If you must have one, Harry’s Bar is where the drink originated… and they still do the best bellini in the city.
* A fair few bàcari are closed on Sundays, so Sunday is not a day that I’d recommend attempting a major bàcrawli.
* There’s usually about zero to four seats in the bar area of these establishments, so the point is to stand (either inside or out) and chat with everyone. Don’t be shy, I’ve met so many lovely locals at bàcari.
* The early bird catches the worm, and in this case the worm is ambiance. I’m not saying don’t go to a bàcaro in the evening, but definitely try popping into a few earlier in the day for a more relaxed experience… especially if you’re visiting Venice in the summer months.
* If you find yourself feeling ravenous, many of the places listed below also do proper meals. Just ask for a table and a menu.
Ready to set off on your own bar crawl? Here are some of my favourite spots to drink like a Venetian, by sestiere –
Al Timon – Fondamenta degli Ormesini, 2754
Al Timon is probably the most ‘hip’ of Venice’s bàcari. It’s in an area of Venice that’s far enough away from all of the main tourist attractions, and thus attracts a young, local crowd. They’ve got an enormous case that’s filled with different cicchetti each day, but the best ones go quick so don’t arrive too late. They’ve also got a little barge moored just outside on the canal, so if it’s a sunny day stake a claim and enjoy living the dream. This is also a proper restaurant in the evening that does THE.BEST.EVER.STEAKS.
Alla Vedova – 3912
THE MEATBALLS. I need you to try the meatballs. Alla Vedova isn’t just a bàcaro, it’s a proper trattoria serving up some incredible local cuisine. I do recommend it for dining, but I often just pop in for a couple of glasses of house wine (poured from big pottery jugs) and a few of their famous fried meatballs (polpette) which literally melt in your mouth.
Give me the meatballs and nobody gets hurt.
They churn out hundreds of them in the evening, but they go as quickly as they arrive so keep a close eye on the bar for fresh bowls of them coming out of the kitchen. Also highly recommended are the (seasonal, sorry) stuffed zucchini blossoms. They fill them with cheese, fry them, and sprinkle them with salt and then I fall to my knees and praise God and the chef.
Fried zucchini blossoms.
Osteria dal Riccio Peoco - Fondamenta Trapolin, 4462
Genuinely one of my all time favourite spots in all of Venice. This little gem is run by a man named Donato, who is a proper Venetian legend. They usually stay open LATE so this is the spot to be for the end of a major booze run. Donato usually has some incredible 80's tunes on, and sometimes there's even karaoke happening... most likely led by me. There's always gorgeous fried mozzarella here, a selection of arancini (huge fried risotto balls), and they also dish out small plates of incredible fresh pasta in the evening with various homemade sauces. It's very, very small... so all of the cool kids spill out into the adjoining square to drink and chat. If you go, please tell Donato I love him and give him a big hug for me.
Ai Promessi Sposi - Fondamenta Trapolin
The meatballs strike again. This spot is a stunning small restaurant as well (book ahead!) but they serve up incredible cicchetti and drinks in their entry hall. The meatballs come in sets of three (thank you Jesus) and are definitely competition for Alla Vedova. I really can't choose between the two, so I say have them both (I call this the meatball crawl). They do lovely grilled veg and lots of fresh seafood snacks as well, so definitely worth a stop.
El Sbarlefo - Salizada del Pistor, 4558
I was introduced to this gem by my dear friend who has been going there for years. It's just about as Venetian as you're going to get. I have this joke with her about how Venetians are obsessed with illness (I'm not kidding - just hack a bit anywhere local-y in Venice and see how many people try to diagnose/cure you) and this place just happens to LITERALLY HAVE A MEDICAL DICTIONARY as their 'light bar reading'. THIS. IS. VENICE.
Fairly sure the cure to everything is a spritz.
They have lovely cicchetti on all day, and the chaps behind the bar have got... well... a sense of humour. Observe below the plating of some snacks I ordered one evening.
Osteria al Portego – Calle della Malvasia, 6014
€1 house wine, you guys. This place is small and it’s usually standing room only (the dining room in the back is reserved for proper meals – understandable) but you can usually nab a spot at one of the big barrels outside. The staff are superb, some of the friendliest in Venice, and their spritz packs a punch. One of my favourite bites here was a little crostini with shrimps and orange, and I’m also kind of obsessed with their grilled polenta.
Al Squero – 943/944
Al Squero will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the very first bàcaro I stumbled upon during my first trip to Venice. It was sunny, it was my birthday, and I was a bit tipsy. It really couldn’t have gone wrong. Al Squero is located right across a small canal from one of the boat yards (squero) where they make gondolas, so there’s some excellent lingering and watching to be done here. I know this because I once spent a good hour perving on a young (handsome) man working on a boat in the Venetian sunshine. He also had a cat, a little Venetian cat… so I might be in love. In any case, they do an incredible spritz, and I’d recommend getting there on the early side of the afternoon because it gets a bit rammed as the daylight wanes.
Al Bottegon – Fondamenta Nani, 992
Al Bottegon is one of my favourite Venetian mind fucks. When you arrive, you’ll notice that the painted sign actually says ‘Cantine del vino gia Schiavi‘. There’s a tiny sign above the premises that says ‘Vini al Bottegon‘, but you’ll probably miss it. In any case, whatever it's meant to be called, you’ve just found yourself (either by accident or through a lot of effort) at one of the best cicchetti spots in all of Venice. Al Bottegon is a very well known (read: busy) bàcaro that specialises in wine. They have bottles stacked literally floor to ceiling, and there’s always an incredible selection of fine glasses at reasonable prices. I love a good glass of wine… but what always lures me back into Al Bottegon is my big fat ass because their cicchetti selection is my soulmate. On any given day there will be at least 15-20 options to choose from, and they have some really unique offerings you won’t find elsewhere in Venice. My personal favourites? The classic baccalà is creamed salt cod on a small crostini, but try their version that’s laced with garlic if they have it – so good! If it’s in season, the crostini topped with brie cheese and nettle sauce is incredible too, and every so often then do a crostini topped with edible flowers (fiori) in the spring which is as beautiful as it is delicious (see below.)
The best spot to devour your purchase is across the small bridge, where there’s plenty of space to sit down by the canal.
Gondoliers really do have impeccable timing.
Al Prosecco – Campo San Giacomo da l’Orio, 1503
I know you’re clever enough to guess what they specialise in here at Al Prosecco, and they’ve usually got at least five or six types of the bubbly by the glass. Along with a lovely collection of cicchetti and orgasm-worthy mini sandwiches, they also do beautiful cheese and charcuterie platters. Get in.
Enoteca al Volto – Calle Cavalli, 4081
Cicchetti gems are a rarity in the tourist-laden San Marco area, but this little enoteca is the exception. Located just a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge, it’s an absolute wonder that the prices are so reasonable. Al Volto is rumoured to be the oldest wine bar in Venice, with about 1,000 different bottles on offer any given evening. The staff are well versed on the juice, so even if you’re not a confident wino you’re sure to leave in a merry state. The attached restaurant does brilliant food, but we’re focusing on cicchetti here and trust me when I say you need to get involved with the salami and artichoke crostini.
P.S. – There’s a cash only policy at this establishment, and my old fashioned heart loves them for it.
All’Arco – Calle Arco, 436
Not too far off from the Rialto Bridge, All’Arco is a family-run longstanding favourite of the locals, including fisherman working at the nearby Rialto market. They’ve always got a great selection of cicchetti, but no visit to All’Arco is complete without trying one of their mind-blowing sandwiches. I’m fairly sure there’s every kind of meat and cheese you could ever imagine, along with a selection of grilled and marinated vegetables and different spreads.
Cicchetti at All’Arco.
Cantina Do Mori – 429
A strong contender for my favourite bàcaro. Do Mori dates back to 1462, so it’s a bit of a legend in Venice… and rightly so. It’s an old-fashioned chair-free haven of wine, and I could easily spend an entire day drinking, eating and people watching here. It’s said Casanova himself used to frequent this bar, which makes me wonder what I would give to go back in time and have a chat with him over a bottle of wine. Speaking of wine… they’ve got huge wooden vats of them behind the bar. I would crawl into one and drink myself to death if I could, but I’m not sure I’d fit. They specialise in locally produced wine so be a doll and try one out… you won’t be disappointed.
The cicchetti are as good as the atmosphere. Anything you try will be delicious, but I’m a sucker for whatever the hell cheese it is that they always have on little toothpicks. Seriously. Give me all of your cheese.
Note: It can get a wee bit crowded with tourists here in the late afternoon during high months, so I always stop by earlier in the day (they open at 8:00 and, as far as I’m concerned, wine is acceptable for breakfast). I can only hope no more than two people are reading this so I haven’t completely ruined the morning ambiance.
Ostaria dai Zemei – Ruga Rialto, 1045/B
Run by twins Franco and Giovanni, this tiny bàcaro is a haven for foodies. The cicchetti vary from the classic to the inventive, and everything is top quality. Strewn about the bar are various photographs of the twins from childhood, along with images of other pairs of twins who’ve stopped in.
All of the twins.
I always pick up some of the crostini topped with various cured meats – I’m not sure who their supplier is but the salami, proscuitto, etc is divine! If you can handle the heat, they do some seriously good spicy cicchetti… be warned though, when they say spicy they mean it.
Cantino Do Spade – Calle Do Spade, 859
Another spot frequented by Casanova in Venice’s heyday… he even mentions the place in his memoirs. The zucchini flowers are all you need in life, and small jugs of their house wine can be ordered for just a few euros a go. If you like calamari, they do some of the best in Venice and there’s a vast selection of fresh seafood options in the cicchetti case every day.
Did I manage to forget your favourite bàcaro? Forgive me, and leave a comment! I’d love to try it out next time. That’s the beauty of Venice… no matter how many times you’ve been, there’s always so many places you’ve still yet to discover.
Ciao for now,