Daily Dose of Europe: Venice’s Cicchetti Crawl

Venice may be empty of tourists this summer. But in normal times, the city entertains millions of visitors each year. On a recent trip, a Venetian friend told me that almost every restaurant caters to the tourists. Then, with a sly smile, he added, “But there are still the cicchetti bars.”

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

Cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee) are the local appetizers that line the counters of little pubs all over Venice at the end of each workday. My favorite meal is what I call “The Stand-Up Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner.” In a town with canals and no cars, pub-crawling is easy and safe — perhaps safer if you know how to swim. Tonight I’ll visit a series of these characteristic hole-in-the-wall pubs, eating ugly-looking morsels on toothpicks, and washing it all down with little glasses of wine. I look forward to the local characters I’ll meet along the way. Cicchetti bars have a social standup zone with a cozy gaggle of tables. In some of the more popular places, the crowds spill happily into the street.

Venetians call this pub crawl the giro d’ombra. Giro means “stroll,” and ombra — slang for a glass of wine — means “shade.” It dates back to the old days, when a portable wine bar scooted with the shadow of the Campanile bell tower across St. Mark’s Square. That wine bar is long gone, but the cicchetti bars remain, tucked away in the perpetual shade of the back streets.

While Venice is, it seems, sinking in tourist crowds, I’d bet 90 percent of those tourists gather along the glitzy shopping streets between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. To find a characteristic cicchetti bar, you have to wander. I don’t worry about getting lost — in fact, I get as lost as I can. I remind myself, “I’m on an island and I can’t get off.” Even though there generally aren’t street names, when I want to find my way, I simply look for small signs on the corners directing me to the nearest landmark (e.g., “per Rialto”).

The cicchetti selection is best early, so I start my evening at 6 p.m. It’s in the far reaches of Venice that I bump into the thriving little bacari (as the local pubs are called). I ask for “un piatto classico di cicchetti misti da otto euro” and get a classic plate of assorted appetizers for €8. I sample deep-fried mozzarella cheese, gorgonzola, calamari, and artichoke hearts. Crostini (small pieces of toasted bread with a topping) are also a favorite, as are marinated seafood, olives, and prosciutto with melon. Meat and fish (pesce) munchies can be expensive, but veggies (verdure) are cheap. Bread sticks (grissini) are free for the asking.

Part of the attraction is the funky decor. There are photos of neighborhood friends here for a family party; St. Mark’s Square the morning after a wild Pink Floyd concert; Carnevale masks evoking a more mysterious past; and of old-time Venice, proving that people may change but the buildings remain essentially the same.

Venetians kick off the experience with an aperitivo, a before-dinner drink. Know your options. A blackboard usually lists several fine wines that are uncorked and available by the glass. Most nights, I get a small glass of house red or white wine (ombra rosso or ombra bianco). Tonight, I’m in the mood for an Aperol spritz — it makes me feel more local.

A man asks me, “Le dispiace se mi siedo qui?” (Do you mind if I sit here?) before sitting down next to me. It occurs to me that’s a handy, polite phrase for making new friends. He orders a drink and food. When his plate of fish arrives, he picks up one of the tiny fish, delicately tied in a loop. Holding it by the toothpick that harpoons it, he looks at it lovingly, says, “Sei il mio piu bel ricordo” (“You are my most beautiful souvenir”), and pops it happily into his mouth. Pushing over his plate, he offers one of the fish to me.

Connecting with people makes a pub crawl more fun: You can meet an Italian, learn some Italian, eat better…and collect your own beautiful souvenirs.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Cicchetti.