Troy Hightower

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Venetian Cicchetti

Venice has been said to be a place where it’s hard to find great food. There is some truth to this—there are many tourist-oriented restaurants where locals would never set foot—inflated prices, supercilious waiters and marginal quality. We’ve found some reliable favorites over the years, and can normally find a good meal. But our favorite way of eating in Venice is the moveable feast known as cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee)—the Venetian version of tapas, served in stand-up taverns known as bacari. Many of these institutions are generations old, and there are also new ones appearing occasionally. Locals call this mobile feast the giro d'ombra—giro literally means “turn” – as in “to take a turn” and ombra is what the tiny 2 oz glasses of wine traditionally taken with cicchetti is called. On our year-end holiday trip this past December we ‘turned’ several tasty giri.

Near the Rialto there are several places well known to us, and we were delighted to discover a couple of new ones as well. Cicchetti are one or two bites—something on a crostino, like tuna with shredded leeks or duck liver mousse; something on a toothpick, like a chunk of mortadella, an olive and a piquant pepperoncino; something on a napkin like a crisp, hot croqueta of ground chicken and mushrooms; something on a tiny plate like a nodule of tender, long-cooked oxtail. And last but far from least are the small crust-less white-bread triangle sandwiches filled with any manner of mixtures called tramezzini. We've learned over the years to go from place to place in a general area, a bite or two and an ombra of red or white, or a birrino—a miniscule glass of lager.

Cantina do Mori, possibly the most famous bacaro in Venice, is three alley-twists from the Rialto market. Do Mori is a narrow space with dark wood and beams, glass carboys of wine in wicker baskets behind the bar, and a long glass case full of cicchetti. They make a special version of tramezzini called francoboli—literally postage stamp--for their miniscule square size. We hungrily tossed down tuna and egg, and mushroom and raddichio along with an ombra of ruby-red Refosco.

Then  on to another favorite a turn away, El Arco—a century-old bacaro. Chunks of an enormous mortadella and crostini of tiny pink lagoon shrimp are perfect, with a small glass of Pinot Griggio ramato—a lightly copper-tinged wine which results from leaving the wine on the skins for a while. Ramato is the Italian word for hammered, which alludes to hammered copper, the wine's color. Right at the corner of the fish market is a tiny bar called da Lollo, which is our favorite for tramezzini—shrimp and scallop in mayonnaise filling one, and gorgonzola spinach spilling from another, with a glass of Prosecco this time. It's interesting to watch them make tramezzini, of which they sell hundreds a day. Special loaves of white bread come sliced long-ways. Two long pieces are quickly de-crusted, then spread completely with one of the mixtures. The second piece of crust-less bread on top, and alternating cuts drop a dozen triangle sandwiches ready to be wrapped in a napkin.

A few more alleys away in Calle della Madonna sits another new find the Ostaria Diavolo L'Acquasanta (reflect on the juxtaposition—madonna; devil; holy water) The place was packed with locals spilling into the alley where a few chairs and tables are scattered. The Devil features a few different house specialties: melanzane ripiene—eggplant slices stuffed with mozarella and tomato and fried; bacalao fritto—fried balls of salt cod and potato; the Venetian tradition Sarde-in-saor—sardines in a sweet-vinegary sauce with marinated onions and tiny raisins.

In the coming days we would wander farther afield to other favorites--alla Vedova just off the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio for their famous polpette—crumbed and fried balls of ground ham and veal with; and hot crispy fritura di mare of tiny smelt, perfect shrimp, squid tentacles, baby scallops and a longish clam we didn't know. Makes the standard fried calamari appetizer in the states hide its head and weep.  Ghia Schiavi on Rio San Trovaso across the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro--a combination bacaro and wine shop—is a family operation. Alessandra De Respinis creates all the cicchetti, displayed in glass cases in front—crostini of tuna and leeks, chopped mushrooms in mayonnaise, anchovy on egg, gorgonzola with walnuts, mousse of mortadella, and other variations of her whim. Her two sons pour wine, and sell bottles, and the old man washes glasses, serves old friends, reaches bottles off high shelves for fur-clad matrons and keeps his eye on everything. Just down and across the Rio sits a most Venetian place, Squero di San Trovaso, one of only three remaining boatyard in Venice that builds and repairs gondolas (if you want one, you’ll wait over three months, and fork out more than 20,000 euros). Across the Rio sits the Osteria al Squero, where we try old-fashioned baccalà mantecato—whipped salt cod and potatoes, and pieces of warm flatbread topped with slivers of lardo and chopped rosemary, accompanied by a Venetian spritz—Aperol, prosseco and seltzer, which for some unknown reason comes garnished with both a salty olive and an orange slice on a pick.

Two more new finds:  A quick traghetto across the canal in Salizada St Rocco sits Vinus Venizia - a lovely, elegant wine bar; chalk board of interesting wines; elegant cicchetti--ricotta topped with pickled peppers; lardo arranged as a flower, blood-red fat-flecked shards of prosciutto knife-carved off a whole black-footed leg. And finally, runs two blocks from our apartment in Calle Crosera, which is packed with galleries, restaurants, alimentari, a pasticceria, lies the bacaro side of the Trattoria da Fiore. The bacaro is packed and overflowing into the street at almost all hours. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the tiny bar we downed crisp, hot calamari fritti with Soave from the Veneto and Grillo from Sicily. Next we tucked into crostini of proscuitto and the most delicate yet flavorful lardo we've had. To finish we quite enjoyed a slightly more substantial plate of pillow-y gnocchi in wild duck sauce. To cap both the evening and this Venetian series of giri d’ombra we sipped glasses of sweet fragolino, the local dessert wine and nibbled a few biscotti.

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