Hitting the Jackpot for Venetian Cicchetti (Small Bites)
I can be a control freak, which at times can be at odds with spontaneity and seizing the moment. When I do quit trying to orchestrate life’s opportunities, some pretty great experiences have shown up in my life. Hence, this post…
We’ve recently relocated to the Veneto, and are living within a half-hour of Venice. We’ll still be maintaining the house in Umbria, but the Veneto is now our “home base”. So, just days ago, and after yet another day of unpacking and trying to settle into our new abode, friends called and invited us to meet them in Venice for drinks and cicchetti, which are Venetian “small bites”. We drove to Venice Mestre and took the train shuttle into Venice. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Frankly, I had to keep reminding myself that I’m one lucky fellow now to be able to do this kind of thing.
Having drinks and cicchetti is like breathing for Venetians. I’ve quickly became a devotee of the practice, after visiting some of the best establishments for these addictive “small bites”.
A good friend, who hails from an old Venetian family, urged us to visit Bacarando in Corte dell’Orso. It is so close to the Rialto bridge you might think it would be a major tourist trap. Thankfully it’s hidden from view of most tourists, several turns down a narrow alley which seems to be a dead-end. As we arrived this past Thursday night, a barren alleyway suddenly yielded a lively crowd spilling out the door of Bacarando in Corte dell’Orso, with drinks and small plates in hand. Inside, locals were queueing up to order the beautifully displayed cicchetti. The variety was immense, and at least half of the selection was seafood “themed”. Baccalà, or codfish, is the star of much cicchetti in Venice, and comes in many yummy variations. There were vegetarian options (e.g. mini eggplant Parmigiano), meat options (e.g. skewers with sausages and vegetables), and several cheese options (e.g. fried mozzarella with anchovies). I could have closed my eyes, and pointed blindly at the vast array of choices without being disappointed with any single dish. I ordered the skewers of grilled seafood, several polpette (meatballs) of tuna and ricotta, polpette with meat, and a couple of mini eggplant Parmagiano.
As for the drinks, in typical Venetian fashion almost every other drink being consumed was an Aperol Spritz. But, the other choices are bountiful and include cocktails, and local wines. I went for the Cabernet Franc, which was only 3 euro a glass. And, most cicchetti are 1.50 euro. This all translates into the ability to have an amazing meal of small bites. I ate and drank well, and my bill was less than 20 euro. A similar meal back in San Francisco easily would have topped $40.
The ambiance of of Bacarando Corte dell’Orso is warm, and the people working the bar and the cicchetti counter are incredibly friendly, and fast in getting refills of drinks or plates of fresh cicchetti. An important note: The bar area, and the alley just outside is where you want to be. While the attached restaurant (upstairs) is quite good, it is also fairly expensive, and the ambience from the bar below seems to evaporate as you ascend the stairs.
The crowd at Bacarando Corte dell’Orso seems to be about 75% locals, and about 25% stranieri (foreigners) who surely have done their research or been advised to come here by a Venetian friend “in the know”.
Now, you can be “in the know” when you come to Venice and endeavor to have a remarkable experience with cicchetti. Other cicchetti places abound, many of which are quite good. But, there is some mediocrity to be found if you don’t know where to go. If in doubt, scan the crowd to be certain it is well-populated by locals, who take their cicchetti very seriously.