(CNN) — “Cicchetti is the glue that holds Venice together,” says mask maker Sergio Boldrin of Bottega dei Mascareri. “It is impossible to think of finishing work without stopping for a drink and a snack on the way home, meeting friends, catching up on the news of the day.”
Ask a Venetian to define cicchetti and you will get as many answers as there are varieties of the tasty finger food. In a town that moves by foot or by boat, munching on cicchetti while having a glass of wine called an ombra and chatting with friends in a bar called a bacaro is a fundamental part of life in Venice.
Cicchetti can include everything from squiggly sea creatures impaled on toothpicks, and fried meatballs called polpette, to colorful toppings spread on slices of baguette called crostini — and that’s just for starters. Traditionally, you eat them standing at a bar, or just outside the door. The ritual of having a drink and a snack in a welcoming setting is what’s key — this is not street food to be eaten while strolling around town.
Cicchetti are inexpensive, costing about €1 – €5 ($1.10 – $5.50), depending on the ingredients. Each cicchetto is as creative as the individual who invents it, which makes going on a giro de ombre — a bacaro crawl — a chance to taste the soul of Venice.
Like many Venetian traditions, the actual cicchetti locals consume have transformed throughout the decades, but the ritual remains the same. In Italian, the word “ombra” means shadow or shade; “ombre” is the plural. According to legend, centuries ago vendors sold wine in St. Mark’s Square, following the shade of the Campanile (the giant belltower) with their carts to keep the wine cool. The result? The expression “un’ombra di vino” or “a shadow of wine.”
Venetians don’t like to drink on an empty stomach, so “cichéti” were born, believed to come from the Latin “ciccus” meaning “small amount.” The initial offerings were simple morsels like boiled octopus or a hard-boiled egg topped with an anchovy. Establishments called “bàcari” evolved to serve ombre and cicchetti, said to be inspired by an old Venetian expression to “far bàcara” or “to celebrate” — a term which itself might have evolved from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and pleasure.
Over at Rialto, the one-time headquarters of international trade at the foot of the world-famous bridge, merchants conducted their business in the shade of the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto (known locally as San Giacometo), next to Banco Giro, the circulating credit bank. Cicchetti washed down with an ombra was a type of fast food eaten by traders to complete business quickly 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.”
A glass display case filled with a kaleidoscope of sliced baguettes smeared with exotic toppings is the centerpiece of Schiavi in the Dorsoduro district. Also called “Bottegon,” the bar started life as a wine cellar at the end of the 19th century. In addition to dozens of fresh cicchetti, it serves about 25 wines by the glass as well as selling hundreds of bottles from the Veneto region, including wines from the estates of the local aristocracy. You will find owner Alessandra De Respinis behind the counter every morning, chatting with her clientele as she prepares her savory snacks.
When De Respinis’ father-in-law, Sisto Gastaldi, took over the bacaro in 1945, there were plenty of ombre, but the only cicchetti offered were pickled onions speared by anchovies, mortadella and green peppers, and hard-boiled eggs. De Respinis started working at 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 inventing her own tasty morsels to accompany the glasses of wine.
De Respinis sliced fresh, crispy baguettes into bite-sized pieces that you could eat with two fingers. Tuna and leek, and gorgonzola and walnuts topped her initial creations. As she found her rhythm, her imagination was sparked by seasonal ingredients. She experimented by mixing and matching colors and flavors, inventing new cicchetti devoured by the locals.
Now in her seventies, De Respinis has a team of offspring providing support, but she still works every day until noon. She has created about 70 different specialties, including her award-winning tartare di tonno e cacao: tuna mixed with egg yolk, capers, mayonnaise, and parsley, then sprinkled with bitter cocoa.
“My motto is to always serve fresh food,” says De Respinis. “At the end of the day, we offer whatever is left to the last customers, or eat it ourselves.”
‘Cicchetti was humble food’
Modern cicchetti — baguette slices layered with toppings — are thought to have been invented by Alessandra De Respinis.
“There are no cicchetti in Venice anymore!” 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 his family’s roots in Venice back to the year 1340. He doesn’t own a television and has spent 40 years trying to decipher the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” that mysterious Renaissance book published by Aldo Manuzio in Venice in 1499 that has puzzled 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 the Venetian way), featuring recipes that the bacari prepared in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Cicchetti was humble food made from spienza, the spleen, or trippa rissa, tripe — no part of the animal went to waste,” 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 made the best octopus on Wednesday. But all those bacari are gone.”
Today there are hundreds of places to eat cicchetti scattered throughout the bacari and osterie of Venice, but Filippi is adamant. “Crostini — spreading a topping on a slice of bread — is not cicchetti!”
Where (else) to eat cicchetti
Today, there are myriad cicchetti on offer.
Wander through the calli on the western side of the Rialto Bridge, in the San Polo district, and you’ll stumble upon several good bacari serving an assortment of cicchetti in various incarnations. Despite Filippi’s pronouncements, crostini are ubiquitous, and it seems that the Alessandra De Respinis’ recipes at Schiavi may have inspired many bacari to follow her lead, adorning slices of baguette with creative inventions.
Tiny All’Arco is always jammed with locals. Playing in the background is the musical sound of undulating Venetian voices that ebb and flow like the water lapping in the lagoon. There are dozens of ever-changing fresh crostini depending on the season, from shrimp to prosciutto and everything in between, as well as small tables outside to enjoy them.Cantina Do Spade has been around since 1488 and was one of Casanova’s old haunts — in Chapter 17 of his erotic memoir, “A Story of My Life,” he tells the tale of how he and seven of his friends seduced a young married woman in a back room of Do Spade during the Carnival of 1745. You can join the revelers out in the calle for meatballs or grilled squid, or sit down for a meal at the wooden tables inside.
In the next street over 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 folk who do business in the area with a dash of tourists, and no seating other than a handful of stools. The dark wooden interior radiates antiquity, offering classic cicchetti and a good selection of wine.
According to tradition, Venice was born at 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 like one big 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. They all serve different variations of cicchetti. Banco Giro has transformed from 17th-century bank to 21st-century osteria, and stands out with its fluffy homemade baccalà mantecato, a Venetian standard made from Norwegian stockfish, which is creamed and spread on crostini.
Gourmet or from the bar, cicchetti are made with love.
Ristorante Local aims to propel traditional Venetian food into the future. Together with her dedicated team, Benedetta Fullin, the 36-year-old owner, raised Venetian cuisine to rockstar level and earned a Michelin star for the effort. Local’s interior was handcrafted by select local artisans and serves only a tasting menu. But that menu kicks off with constantly changing cicchetti, inspired by the availability of fresh, local ingredients.
From the shade of the ancient Campanile, to the humble kitchens of the 1950s, to the inventive crostini of the 1970s, to 21st century “New Venetian Cuisine,” cicchetti are ever-evolving but have one thing in common: they are made by Venetians with camaraderie and love.