VENICE Report: Cicchetti
During our trip to Venice from 22 May to 24 May, one of my and my wife's favorite activities was to visit the barcari and osterie that served cicchetti. We visited for lunch, we visited before dinner, and we even visited in the morning to supplement the breakfast that was served by our hostess. Below are our impressions of the places that we patronized.
Cantina do Mori, found on one of the back alleys near the Rialto Market, was our first stop. Inside its dim, rustic interior we found a decent, straightforward selection of cicchetti: baccala mantecato on rounds of bread and sarde in soar (which were consistently good everywhere), assorted tramezzini, meatballs, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs with anchovy. We returned each day, sometimes twice, not necessarily because the cicchetti and wine were extraordinary, but because we liked the staff and the ambiance. The gentleman who worked behind the bar recognized us each morning and humored our imperfect Italian. It felt as if we found a neighborhood bar.
To compare, we thought the food was better at Cantina do Spade, which was several doors away from Cantina do Mori. We went to Cantina do Spade twice and enjoyed the food both times, but we felt awkward and uncomfortable with the staff. Compared to Cantina do Mori, the cicchetti was more varied and a step or two beyond simple tramezzini or cheese. There were grilled or stuffed squid, crab legs, grilled vegetables, and seafood risotto as well as the Venetian standards like sarde and baccala.
Also near the Rialto Market was Bancogiro, and its location on a campo adjacent to the Grand Canal will allow you to overlook the tourists that occupy all the tables (tourists were the minority at each of the other places that we visited). We typically equate restaurants that offer unparalleled views with restaurants that serve unremarkable food, but the cicchetti were excellent and different than the standard line. We sampled the sarde in soar, and we also ate roasted eggplant, octopus, and lardo salad on grilled polenta, and baccala mantecato (lumpier and less creamy than elsewhere, which wasn’t bad, only different) on a square of squid ink polenta, which was far better than baccala on bread. Compared to the other bacari and osterie, one should expect mechanical (albeit professional) service given Bancogiro’s propensity to attract tourists.
Although we considered Cantina do Mori to be our neighborhood bacaro, our favorite spot for cicchetti was at Osteria La Bottega Ai Promessi Sposi, inconspicuously located off of Strada Nova. The front was small and crowded, and each evening groups of men would pop in for a glass of wine and a snack as they fraternized more and delayed their trip home. It all seemed very Italian. Behind the glass case, there were platters of sarde in saor, baccala mantecato, grilled peppers, meatballs, and various plates of sardines and anchovies. The sarde in soar and baccala were the best of all the places that we visited. The acidity and sweetness of the saor was perfectly balanced and the sardines were relieved of their fishiness, and the baccala was whipped so well that it mimicked mayonnaise. The staff was overwhelming friendly and even willing to list the ingredients in the sarde in soar despite the crowd. And to top it off, their house red wine was only 0.80€ per glass and perfectly drinkable.
Farther down Strada Nova, we found Osteria al Bomba and La Cantina. The former was probably the osteria equivalent of an American dive bar. Although the owners were friendly and engaging, we didn’t find the cicchetti that tempting or the ambiance that stimulating. We tried Osteria al Bomba’s sarde in saor, which was comparable to all the others and a warm spinach “cake” topped with parmesan, which was watery and bland. If Osteria al Bomba was a dive bar, then La Cantina was the equivalent of an American wine bar. It had a refined-rustic sort of style that so many new establishments in San Francisco attempt to recreate. Their cicchetti focused on salumi, cheese, and fish. Unfortunately, these items didn’t appeal much to my wife, so we only stayed for a quick drink and a snack of sashimi (I can’t remember the type of fish) topped with shaved radish, olive oil, and finely chopped parsley on a round of bread—very fresh and clean and definitely the prettiest piece of cicchetto that we found. Based on my limited sample, I wanted to return, but it wasn’t in the cards.
Also in the Strada Nova neighborhood was Osteria Ca’ D’Oro, which seemed to be the most popular among the group that we visited. Many customers here brought their wine and plates of cicchetti outside and placed them gingerly on windowsills or any other available surface. This was done not so much because the evening air was warm and inviting (which it was), but because the crowd in front of the trays of cicchetti at the front of the house occupied all the prime interior space. Osteria Ca D’Oro offered the types of cicchetti that we found elsewhere in Venice, as well as a wide selection of fried items like meatballs, sardines, anchovies, and calamari. The quality of the cicchetti was as good as Osteria La Bottega Ai Promessi Sposi’s, and if not for the crowd, we would have gone more than once.
And finally: Pronto Pesce. It’s last because it didn't fit well with the other establishments mentioned here, nor did it belong in my report of Venetian restaurants. However, its last place position is no indication of the quality of the fish that Pronto Pesce prepared, which was excellent. Maybe this should be expected given Pronto Pesce's location adjacent to the Rialto Market, which allows one to watch the fishmongers prep their catch from the shop’s window. We did just this with glasses of wine and plates of terrific seafood on two separate occasions. Pronto Pesce offered typical cicchetti like sarde in saor and baccala mantecato (both were excellent) as well as more extravagant cicchetti like moeche (soft-shell crabs, which unfortunately were overdressed with olive oil). However, Pronto Pesce’s specialties were its prepared fish, two of which could not have been served in portions large enough to satisfy us. The first was branzino with celery, carrots, olives, and ample rosemary and olive oil. And the second was salmon with roasted potatoes, celery, grapes, fennel seed, and olive oil. Although we were in Venice three weeks ago, we still think about those two dishes.