The art of cicchetti-ing in Venice
Venice in the quiet of the winter is when I love this city the most. There is something about the mystery of the dark, damp city that is brought out even more by the misty weather.
Thomas Mann described Venice as “half fairy-tale, half tourist trap,” an observation that is still valid even a century later, and is actually, I think, one of the things that contributes to the city’s mystery and charm. For me Venice is almost always a fairytale, but especially in the winter when the wet weather, cold air and the festive season seem to create the perfect excuse for zipping into bacari and cicchetti-ing our way around Venice (although to be honest, this works out pretty well no matter what day of the year).
We’re in Venice for a long weekend to visit a friend for his birthday and have planned to simply sustain ourselves on cicchetti, little tapas-like morsels, eaten perhaps while drinking a spritz, the obligatory Venetian cocktail made with aperol or campari, mixed with prosecco and soda.
The evening starts off with a quick bite at Arco, near the Rialto markets. Some creamy baccala mantecato and a quick prosecco later, and we’re off to pay a visit to Caffé Florian, which has been in the same prestigious spot in Piazza San Marco since 1720. A drink at the mid-19th century bar inside is surprisingly cheap, considering you can pay an arm and a leg for just a cappuccino if you happen to sit outside. The piazza on a winter evening is eerily empty, except for some solitary rose-sellers and the smell of pigeons, a bit like a decadent, decaying amusement park after hours. Venice, showing off her dark side.
Our next stop is at La Vedova, near Ca’ d’Oro, for their fried polpette di carne (meatballs). After our brisk walk cutting through the narrowest of calle to get to the Strada Nova, we crowd in through the front door and stand with other polpette-goers while we get handed our ombre – little glasses of wine, named after the shadow of Piazza San Marco’s clock tower that wine sellers used to follow to keep the wine cool. The polpette – crispy and crunchy on the outside and soft and tasty inside – keep flying fresh out of the kitchen so we keep eating them. On display are also sarde in saor (sardines marinated in vinegar), another of my favourite cicchetti, and crispy deep-fried sardines with soft white polenta.
After a night of bacari-hopping, we decide to make the most of spending the morning indoors on the 3rd floor, sleeping in and eating leftover pastries from the delectable Tonolo, rather than wade around in thigh-high water. As soon as the water level goes back to normal we head off to the market to whet our appetites.
The Rialto markets have been around since the Middle Ages and are always on my list of places to go when I visit Venice. I like to poke around and see what local fish or vegetables are on offer, it’s all so different from what you can find in Florence. For one thing, Florence is not the place for seafood, but Venice definitely is. One of the things I love are live moeche, little crabs that are caught right here in the Venetian Lagoon. The technique for fishing them is just as precious as the little critters themselves, as it is a practice that goes back centuries. For a few months of the year, in the autumn or spring, you can get the male crabs while they have a soft-shell, just as they are changing suits. They’re absolutely delicious deep-fried and eaten whole.
I also love how the Venetians prepare their artichokes. In the markets you can buy them with the bottoms cleaned and separate from the leaves like discs. Today I notice they also have on display some beautiful violet artichokes, labelled Castraure, which are a bit suspicious as the real ones are only available for a short time from around the end of April until mid-June. These small, precious artichokes are found only on the Venetian island of Sant’Erasmo, and are best eaten raw. My friend and artichoke guru, Michael, has a great post on them here.
After a good wander around the markets we pop into Pronto Pesce, a small gastronomia flanking the fish markets, for a bit of lunch: mini brioche filled with thin slices of smoked tuna, artichoke paste and spicy mustard with tiny glasses of white wine, followed by steaming bowls of zuppa di pesce. Fish soup transforms itself into hundreds of ways as it crosses the borders of each Italian region. This version of fish soup is so different from the Tuscan style I’m used to from Livorno – full of whole seafood and fish, floating in a tomato soup and freshly scented with a bit of parsley. This one is more like a rich broth; no seafood to be seen, but an incredibly flavourful copper-coloured liquid tasting of mouthfuls of the sea with tomato and sweet spices. It goes down a treat on this cold, wet winter day. We watch from great big windows as the fish markets begin closing and oversized seagulls steal sardines straight from the counters when fishmongers turn their backs.
This is definitely the fairy-tale part of Venice, for me.