Venice really does sound like something out of a fantasy novel. It’s an historic city of small islands in the middle of a lagoon, a pattern of criss-crossing canals and labyrinthine streets. It is a city traversed only by foot or water. You might find Venice swollen with thousands of masked and costumed revellers, or perhaps with the supernatural tides of the acqua alta. Venice is art and music and elegant decay.
Venice is cicchetti, and Venice is wine.
We met Elisabetta in Campo de la Maddalenna late in the morning along with three other couples eager for a taste of the real Venice. It was clear that Elisabetta was a character; she was perpetually smiling and had a vigorous affection for the city she called home. She promised to show us the side of Venice many travellers miss, imparting a simple philosophy: ‘just one street over’. Yes, the city might seem crowded and touristy to those on the well-worn sightseer’s path – but divert as little as one street over and oftentimes you’ll find yourself in a whole other Venice.
With that we slipped into this other Venice: cool and quiet streets where Elisabetta revealed her font of local knowledge. She led us to the Grand Canal where we crossed standing in a traghetto – a gondola used by locals simply to cross the Grand Canal when there is no bridge nearby. On the other side was the Rialto Market and here we explored the inspiration for all great dishes in Venice. This is the place where Venetian chefs shop for fresh, local ingredients on a daily basis – except for Mondays, when the market is closed (and this, Elisabetta urged, is why you should never eat at a Venetian restaurant that serves seafood on a Monday).
Most of the day’s catch had long disappeared by the time we arrived, but a few stalls still glistened brightly with octopus and crab, squid and scallop. It was precisely this moment in which Mat and I knew that upon next visit to Venice we would most definitely be staying in an apartment with a very well-equipped kitchen. Outside, the produce section was vivid with colour: red radishes and purple plums and more sun-dried tomatoes I’d ever seen before.
It was quickly time to delve into the part of the tour we’d all been most eager for. Again, Elisabetta led us away from the throng – and yet not so far at all – to the door of our very first bàcaro, a special type of wine bar indeed. Bàcari are the home of cicchetti, Venice’s answer to tapas or pintxos.
Cicchetti is perhaps the heart of Venetian food culture. Cicchetti bars began popping up around the Rialto Markets as a place for Venice’s fishermen and market workers to finish their day’s work with a quick bite and a glass of wine – no matter that these customers would, of course, be finishing their day’s work still very much in the morning hours. And for this, cicchetti is traditionally a daytime offering, extending to early evening at the latest and often with a closed period during the afternoon.
Elisabetta magicked us through four different bàcari, each with its own unique history and personality. The cicchetti came thick and fast: little deep-fried sandwiches, toothpicks pierced with cured meats and pickled vegetables, polenta and crusty breads topped with all manner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The cod paste was a wonderfully surprising favourite. You see why we eased into bàcaro life so very comfortably. In these small, hole-in-the-wall bars our little group hovered happily, a piece of cicchetti in one hand and a glass of local wine in the other.
By two o’clock we’d arrived at our final cicchetti bar, where a sparkling Raboso wine enchanted a stay far, far longer than anticipated. It is indeed the custom to hop from one bàcaro to the next, but it seems we found ourselves rather content to while away the rest of the afternoon in this one. Elisabetta eventually sang her goodbyes, but the cicchetti and wine did not stop flowing at all. I would certainly recommend not planning anything for the rest of your day should you partake in this tour. The lovely folk at this cicchetti bar took care of us very well.
It is a very special kind of bliss to slow down and explore an incredible place like Venice through its food, and even moreso to be guided by the hand of a kind, passionate local. To spend a day learning and eating and drinking our way through the city centre’s quiet little corners, Elisabetta at helm and flanked by fellow foodies from across the world – this was one of those beautiful, perfect travel days that makes my heart swell just to remember. If you have but one day to spare for Venice, honestly – find a way to squeeze this tour in. The cicchetti trail waits for you too. x
I booked this tour through Urban Adventures, a wonderful little company that runs day tours all over the world. I have been on several UA tours now (including one in my hometown!) and absolutely adore them.
The Cicchetti and Wine Tour of Venice runs twice a day: 11.30am for the morning tour and 5.15pm for the evening tour. Tour duration is 2.5 hours. The tour does not run on Sundays or during the low Winter season.
Cost of the tour is currently $108.34 (AUD) / $84.80 (USD). Believe me when I say it is worth every penny and more.